Former Galveston County Judge Susan Criss, who presided over Robert Durst’s 2003 trial, is now a criminal and family lawyer — and is free to talk about his acquittal in the murder and dismemberment of neighbor Morris Blake, whose body parts were found in Galveston Bay, Texas, in 2001.
Criss, who appeared in the fourth episode of The Jinx, spoke with Mashable on Monday about Durst’s arrest Saturday at a New Orleans hotel — the night before the final episode of The Jinx aired, in which Durst was heard saying, “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.”
What did you think when you heard Robert Durst was arrested over the weekend in New Orleans?
We’ve all been waiting for him to be arrested for so many years. He’s very dangerous. I was very thrilled and relieved. As a judge I had to be impartial but I’m not a judge anymore so I don’t have to be impartial. I’m relieved he’s not walking in the free world right now.
Did you think he’d be found guilty at the murder trial over which you presided?
I never thought we’d have a trial. I thought they were never going to catch him and that he’d be on the run for the rest of his life, so I was surprised when they caught him to begin with. When they brought him in, I didn’t know what to think — if he’s crazy or not crazy or pretending to be crazy. But he’s not.
It was said at the trial that Durst has Asperger’s. Do you think he does?
I don’t believe he has Asperger’s. I do believe there are people who do have it, but people were just starting to hear about that and there was not as much information then as now. They [the defense team] needed something to put a label on to him to explain his incredibly bizarre behavior, to explain what he does without making him responsible for what he does. They did a good job of it.
You were convinced he did murder Morris Black?
I could see from the beginning, even though the facts were so heinous — pictures of body parts cut up were chilling — you could see that this person knew what they were doing and that it was not a first time. The body was cut perfectly like a surgeon who knew how to use this tool on this bone and a certain kind of tool on that muscle.
It looked like not a first-time job. That was pretty scary.
How was he able to be acquitted if you think it’s obvious that he had committed this murder?
I could see early on that there was a danger that the state was going to lose … The state walked in not prepared and they didn’t think they had to be. They did not think about what to ask each witness including him and questions to ask jurors or to pick the best jurors for their case. They [the defense] had two mock trials they had gone through.
You could tell when they [the state] were asking him [Durst] questions, they were doing it off the cuff. They spent three days cross examining him taking turns because both lawyers had the flu. They forgot to ask him, “Where did you put the head?” The head was never recovered. You had to have the bullet wound. There was no bullet wound on the rest of the body and that was the cause of death, a shot to the back of head.
They also didn’t challenge anything the defense said. There was evidence we had during pretrial hearings that they did not try to introduce tape-recorded phone conversations from jail in which he said things that were incriminating that showed an inclination to lie at trial. Similar to what he did on the TV series. I think at some point the state realized, “Oh my gosh, things aren’t going as we expected” and they gave up and wanted to it be done and they were intimidated by the defense lawyers. It sort of looked to me that they were throwing in the towel.
Why did the jury not convict him if it appears to have been obvious to you that Robert Durst murdered Morris Black?
I suspect now in hindsight some of the jurors may have had ulterior motives as some do in extremely high-profile trials where you know you have national media showing up. One of the jurors befriended him after the trial and began visiting him in the jail and going to dinner with him after he got out of jail. The male juror, Chris Lovell, interviewed in the TV series. He has been one of his [Durst’s] best spokesmen ever since trial.
Was Durst charismatic on the stand? Did he influence the jury?
I don’t think he really is charismatic. He can be a little bit likable. He worked hard to make himself seem human. He did not come across as cold or mean. He’s just a small guy in stature and he doesn’t look like somebody you’d imagine cutting up a body.
What was the feeling you got from him at trial?
In the beginning, he acted crazy and he pretended to talk to imaginary people and he grunted like a pig, that sort of thing. Then he dropped that routine and he seemed like a quiet and intelligent man.
One time in the trial, in chambers, I could see him getting angry and I could see the dark side. He became very frustrated. He was sitting on couch and it was a difference I could see in his face and he was looking around the room at my pictures and trying to find things about me that were personal.
You ran into Durst at the Houston Galleria two years after the trial but while he was still supposed to be on house arrest while on parole. What happened and how did you feel?
He was as friendly as he could be. I was walking down the mall and I saw him before he saw me. He was looking down talking on the phone. I was able to get composure before he saw me, which I was glad about. I know my first look was shock. We were about a foot apart and he dropped his phone and it broke. I think he thought he was violating his parole and so he was busted, but I didn’t know that, so then he was putting his phone back together and I didn’t know what to say. I said, “Hi Bob” and he said, “I can’t believe you’re talking to me.” I said, “It’s a job. It’s not personal and it’s just a conversation,” but I was wondering how I could end this and get away from it. It was the first time I had seen him in the free world and he’s not a dangerous looking person, so I said, “happy holidays” and walked off.
Do you think Robert Durst is a sociopath?
No. He’s not, in a traditional sense of a stereotype of anything we’ve seen. He very much loved his wife and Susan. I don’t think he’ll just kill for thrill or look for someone to kill. I don’t know. It might have been anger or losing his temper.
I think he killed Susan because she was going to testify against him and the belief is that he killed Morris for similar reasons. As far as his wife, they were talking about divorce. He loved her. They got to a point in their marriage where she was not happy. She wanted children or a career and he did not want to support things and she was going to leave him. He didn’t want to be left.
If you cross him, he’ll kill you.
What did you think when he admitted in the final The Jinx episode while in the bathroom that he “killed them all”?
That just might be the most shocking moment in the history of television. It was amazing.