Robert Durst, appearing frail and at times confused while shackled in a yellow prison jumpsuit, broke his silence in Louisiana courtrooms Thursday (April 9) when he pleaded not guilty to two state gun charges.
“Oh, I’m not guilty, your honor,” the California murder suspect told Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judge Franz Zibilich.
“On both counts?” the judge asked.
“Yes, your honor,” Durst replied.
Durst, a New York real estate heir estimated to be worth more than $100 million, was arraigned in state court one day after an Orleans Parish grand jury indicted him on charges that he was both a felon in possession of a firearm and that he possessed a firearm in the presence of a controlled dangerous substance when arrested by federal authorities March 14 at the Canal Street J.W. Marriott hotel.
Durst, who turns 72 on Sunday, remains held without bond. He is considered a flight risk because of a history of bail-jumping and because he faces a first-degree murder warrant out of Los Angeles in connection with the nearly 15-year-old shooting death of writer Susan Berman.
California authorities believed Durst was on the run from the impending warrant when they traced his phone to the New Orleans hotel and asked federal assistance picking him up.
Durst’s high-powered legal team, headed by Houston-based attorney Dick DeGuerin, has said Durst denies any role in Berman’s death and is eager to be extradited to California to face the murder charge.
DeGuerin has sought to quash the Louisiana arrest and the hotel evidence seized because of it, claiming two FBI agents and a state trooper on a federal task force lacked probable cause to detain his client and improperly searched his hotel room without a warrant.
A preliminary hearing on the matter was halted last week when the agents disregarded subpoenas from Durst’s lawyers demanding their testimony and failed to show up in court. That hearing was to resume Thursday, until its need was nullified by Wednesday’s indictment.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office on Tuesday pulled the subpoenas of the federal agents from state court to New Orleans’ federal court, with U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan to hold a conference on the matter Thursday afternoon. A separate court filing Wednesday night by assistant U.S. attorney Myles Ranier indicated Durst’s case is about to move to federal court with a pending United States indictment for illegal firearm possession by a felon.
Durst is to be arraigned April 16 in federal court before U.S. District Judge Lance Africk, and the federal case is expected to then supersede the state case.
“I feel like we’re being tag-teamed,” DeGuerin complained to reporters from across the country outside state court. “And I feel like we need to be in California, where the main case is, so we can try the case. But we now have a solid date here (May 7) when we’ll bring our pretrial motions in the state case.”
DeGuerin called Wednesday’s state grand jury indictment a thinly veiled bit of gamesmanship from Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office to end the preliminary hearing before the FBI agents could be compelled to testify.
“Ordinarily, a pistol case doesn’t get indicted by the grand jury,” DeGuerin said. “But I think that was an effort to keep us from having our hearing today.”
DeGuerin was cautioned by assistant U.S. attorney Duane Evans last week in magistrate court that he might be wise not to press for contempt-of-court charges against the federal agents he wanted to testify in the state probable cause hearing.
“We can do this the easy way or the hard way,” said Evans, who asked for a week so that federal attorneys could formulate a response for their agents. “We need not go down this road.”
But DeGuerin pressed on, having the missing witnesses called to the stand by Magistrate Judge Harry Cantrell’s bailiff. Now, if DeGuerin wants to hear the FBI agents’ testimony, it likely will be in a federal trial where his client faces a mandatory 10-year prison term and/or $250,000 fine if found guilty of violating U.S. gun law.
DeGuerin complained about the missing federal agents Thursday before Zibilich. The state judge appeared sympathetic to his position but said he had no authority to reinstate the subpoenas to state court.
“It’s not in front of me, as to whether or not that is a valid removal,” Zibilich said. “I don’t think I can carry my robe down the street to federal court to preside over the subject.
“I would think, if federal agents made this case, that they would do whatever they need to do to cooperate with the state in order to get their testimony heard and for this case to move forward. … I would think the district attorney’s office would be hard-pressed to win this case without those witnesses, so why not now?”
State prosecutor Laura Rodrigue said, “We would agree that the defense has a right to subpoena these witnesses. However, we are not obligated to present witnesses…”
Zibilich cut her off, saying, “I’m not suggesting that you are. I’m just suggesting that we all start taking ethics and professionalism classes. And since those are the witnesses the state is going to rely on, I presume, in order to make their case, I would just ask that, as a courtesy, you assist them. That’s just me asking. You can do whatever you need to do.”
Durst’s links to three suspected murders recently were detailed in an HBO documentary series “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst.” He was acquitted of a Texas murder in 2003 but has previous federal convictions for being a fugitive from justice and transporting a weapon across state lines while under felony indictment.
Since being declared a suicide risk by Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman, Durst has been housed in the mental health unit of the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel. But Wednesday’s federal motion asks that Durst be remanded to the custody of U.S. Marshals until his federal case is resolved. Local federal detainees are most commonly housed in St. Charles Parish jail facilities.
DeGuerin said outside court that Durst’s health “is a challenge. But we’ll meet that challenge.” The attorney would not elaborate.
By: Ken Daley; (NOLA.com)