Durst’s local attorneys criticize prosecution stemming from 2001 arrest in Valley.
Former lawyers for Robert Durst, who was acquitted of murder in Texas, questioned Friday whether federal authorities are acting in good faith by prosecuting him for having guns in Northampton County three years ago.
The Allentown lawyers leveled the criticism after federal prosecutors announced that the multimillionaire had been indicted because he allegedly had two handguns during his 2001 arrest in Hanover Township.
After that arrest, Durst waived extradition to Texas to face murder charges. In Northampton County Court, Durst gave up his right to fight extradition in exchange for a promise from District Attorney John Morganelli that he would not prosecute Durst.
“I think it’s chicanery for the federal government to now charge him,” lawyer Gavin Holihan said.
John Waldron, another lawyer who represented Durst back then, said the new charges violate at least the “spirit” of Morganelli’s agreement. He said it is likely that whoever represents Durst this time would raise the issue in court, possibly in a motion to dismiss the charges.
But representatives of the U.S. attorney’s office in Philadelphia said they are not bound by Morganelli’s agreement. “There is no agreement with us not to prosecute,” spokesman Richard Manieri said.
Manieri called it a “valid prosecution.”
“This is a person who possessed two loaded firearms in this district [the Eastern District of Pennsylvania] while a fugitive from justice,” Manieri said. “Given the defendant’s admissions during his trial in Texas about his own conduct, we have to take seriously his possession of firearms while in this district.”
Durst, 61, admitted on the witness stand last year that he had killed his neighbor, Morris Black, but claimed it was an accident that happened during a struggle. Durst also said that in a panic he cut up the 71-year-old man’s body and dumped it in Galveston Bay. The jury found him not guilty.
After the verdict, Durst pleaded guilty to bond-jumping and evidence tampering related to the murder case. He received a five-year prison sentence.
Texas prison officials determined he was eligible for parole this week. But an hour before he was to be freed Thursday, Galveston jail officials were ordered to turn Durst over to U.S. marshals because of the gun charges. The marshals are supposed to transport him to Pennsylvania for a court appearance.
Waldron said Durst was charged in Pennsylvania because the authorities don’t accept the Texas jury verdict. “The fact that he was acquitted on the murder charge was upsetting to the state of Texas. I think they’re doing anything to keep him in jail.”
The federal charges arise from his Nov. 30, 2001, apprehension after he allegedly shoplifted a hoagie at the Wegmans off Route 512. At the time, he was a fugitive on the Texas murder charges.
During a search of his rental car, authorities allegedly found two loaded .38-caliber handguns, a small amount of marijuana and $39,000.
Nearly two months later, Durst signed an agreement to waive his extradition to Texas. A letter signed that day by Durst, Morganelli and Holihan said the district attorney would not file charges related to guns, marijuana, drug paraphernalia, theft or related offenses.
“It is also understood,” the letter continued, “that irrespective of any results or verdict arising from the Galveston allegations … the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania will not seek to bring charges against or otherwise try to hold Robert Durst criminally or civilly responsible for his presence or activities in Pennsylvania.”
In court that day, Morganelli said, “It’s the position of my office that the fact that he’s facing serious homicide charges in Texas — that that is the paramount matter. And after discussing this with the district attorney’s office in Texas, they would like to have him brought back there as soon as possible.”
Colonial Regional police officers, who arrested Durst, agreed with Morganelli’s decision, Morganelli said Friday.
“We mutually agreed to not charge Durst for retail theft so the extradition proceedings can move along steadily,” Colonial Detective Gary Hammer wrote in a November 2001 police report.
According to a news release from the U.S. attorney’s office, the Colonial Regional police helped with the gun investigation. Colonial police could not be reached for comment Friday.
Morganelli said he did not know that the U.S. attorney’s office was considering the gun charges until an assistant U.S. attorney informed him about the indictment late this week.
The grand jury in Philadelphia lodged two charges: interstate transportation of a firearm by a fugitive and interstate transportation of a firearm by a person under indictment for a felony. The maximum penalty for the gun charges is 15 years in prison and a $500,000 fine.
In Houston, Durst’s lawyers called the federal custody of Durst illegal because he has to have a court appearance there before being transferred to Pennsylvania. They also asked that bail be set.
A federal judge in Houston ordered federal prosecutors to respond to Durst’s lawyers by noon Monday.
By Elliot Grossman (The Morning Call)