Robert Durst’s arrest in a New Orleans hotel in March was the product of hype from the HBO mini-series “The Jinx,” and not new evidence Durst was behind the death of Susan Berman in 2000, the millionaire’s lawyers said in court filings Thursday (June 4).
Durst’s arrest took place on the eve of the finale of the six-part documentary was no coincidence, the attorneys said in a 55-page motion seeking to throw out evidence found in Durst’s hotel room at the J.W. Marriott hotel on Canal Street. (Read the full motion below this story.)
Police in Los Angeles had sought a warrant for Durst’s arrest just days after the cliffhanger fifth episode of “The Jinx” teased a confrontation in which the show’s producers would show Durst a copy of a letter directing police to a “cadaver” at Berman’s home.
As millions of viewers waited in suspense for the finale, “The California authorities who had been investigating Berman’s murder were on edge as well, but for different reasons,” Durst’s lawyers wrote.
“They were hurriedly planning to arrest Durst before the final episode. They were crafting a dramatic moment of their own.”
U.S. Marshals tracked Durst to the Marriott on March 14, where they questioned the millionaire in the lobby before conducting an “inventory search” of his room that turned up a loaded handgun and a small quantity of marijuana.
The final episode of the TV show aired the following night, and Durst’s lawyers claim, the evidence used to get the California warrant was hardly the bombshell portrayed by “The Jinx” producers or Los Angeles detectives: the letter and handwriting comparisons linking the note to Durst had been known for years.
“The producers and the California authorities thus accomplished together what neither could have done alone,” Durst’s lawyers wrote. “The publicity from the arrest gave the producers a welcome ratings bump, and the artful editing of the show made it seem as though California’s case against Durst was based on information far more substantial than the actual evidence on hand.”
Durst was charged in New Orleans with possession of a weapon by a convicted felon. Those charges were dropped after he was charged with similar counts in federal court, and Durst has remained in federal custody in Louisiana since. His lawyers have said they are eager for their client to return to California to face the murder charges.
Durst’s lawyers said FBI agents questioned in the Marriott lobby and his hotel room for the 72-year-old Durst without reading him his rights, and did not have a warrant when they began a search of his room that lasted more than an hour.
When they filed for a warrant after the FBI agents that first encountered Durst had “inventoried” the items in his room– including the .38-caliber pistol in the pocket of a jacket in his closet– the warrant application sought almost exactly the items found in Durst’s room.
Detectives also noted in their application handwriting experts had identified Durst as the likely author of the “cadaver” note police received shortly after Berman’s body was discovered– but failed to note that at least one expert had identified another suspect as the writer. Durst’s lawyers also noted that handwriting analysis in general is unreliable.
Durst, a millionaire estranged from a family of prominent New York real estate investors, has a crack legal team and has beaten murder charges once before– in a case where he admitted shooting his elderly neighbor, Morris Black.
Jurors acquitted Durst of murder. At trial, Durst said he shot Black while struggling with a pistol during an argument; his lawyers said Durst’s mild autism was a reason he subsequently panicked and chopped up Black’s body and threw it into Galveston Bay.
But Durst pleaded guilty to felony charges for jumping bond and carrying a weapon while under indictment, convictions that bar him from possessing a firearm.
Attempting to block evidence obtained in a search is a routine defense tactic, but veteran New Orleans defense lawyer Tim Meche said nothing in the 55-page motion to suppress is likely to sway a judge to throw out evidence obtained in the search.
“I didn’t see anything in there that jumped out at me” as a breach of Durst’s rights– at least not one common to many criminal investigations. In hunting or a high-profile suspect, it seems investigators were especially cautious, Meche said.
“There are all kinds of exceptions to everything now in the 4th Amendment arena,” Meche said. “This was the FBI chasing Robert Durst, they weren’t going to screw that up.”
Meche said a more likely course for Durst to beat the gun charge is to exploit one of the exceptions that allow a convicted felon to have a firearm.
“You can say that you armed yourself because you were in immediate need to defend yourself,” Meche said. “He could say that he thought he was being pursued, something like that. He’s got some good lawyers, and that’s where I would see this going.”
Read the full motion to suppress from Durst’s lawyers here.
By Andy Grimm (NOLA)