Robert Durst’s defense attorney went on the attack Friday against testimony from a longtime friend who’d said the eccentric real estate heir had admitted murdering their mutual friend Susan Berman in 2000.
In blockbuster testimony Thursday, New York advertising executive Nick Chavin said Durst effectively confessed to the killing after they had dinner in December 2014.
“I had to. It was her or me. I had no choice,” Chavin said Durst told him that evening.
Through most of a five-hour hearing Friday, defense attorney Dick DeGuerin tried to undermine Chavin’s credibility by showing he had spent seven months giving Los Angeles prosecutors shifting, alternative versions of what Durst did or did not say about Berman’s death. Ultimately, he pushed Chavin into declaring that he had indeed lied to prosecutors previously.
“I’m covering up,” Chavin said after hearing a recording of one mid-2015 interview with Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney John Lewin. “For 56 minutes, I was covering up. … Yes, I was lying.”
Prosecutors say Durst, 73, shot Berman in the head to keep her from revealing that he had killed his wife, Kathie Durst, who has not been seen since 1982.
Chavin said Thursday that Berman told him several times that Durst had told her he had murdered Kathie.
Chavin, 72, met Berman in the 1970s and became close to her friend Durst in the early 1980s after Durst helped him land his first big advertising account. When Chavin married in 1988, he chose Durst to be his best man.
Chavin testified last week — more than a year before Durst is likely to go to trial — in a procedure called a “conditional examination,” to preserve his testimony because prosecutors fear he might die, or be killed, before trial.
On direct examination Thursday, he said he began speaking to Lewin and other Los Angeles prosecutors and detectives in April 2015. But it wasn’t until many months and many phone interviews later that on Oct. 30 that year that he finally disclosed what Durst had said to him after their December 2014 dinner.
Chavin told Lewin on Thursday that it was extremely difficult for him to call his close friend a murderer.
“It sounds ridiculous, but yes, this was my best friend, who killed my other best friend,” he said in court.
On Friday, he made the same point more emphatically.
“The only thing I could compare it to is the death of a child,” he said about testifying against Durst.
DeGuerin offered another explanation of why Chavin’s description of his conversation with Durst changed during 10 to 15 interviews with prosecutors.
“It took you seven months to come up with the story,” he said.
“I didn’t ever ‘come up’ with the story,” Chavin responded. “It occurred.”
He had testified that Durst invited him to dinner that December to talk about Berman and Kathie Durst, but that those subjects never came up. After dinner, as they were about to walk away, Chavin said he asked, “You wanted to talk about Susan?”
At that point, he testified Thursday, Durst turned and said, “I had to. It was her or me.”
But quoting from those many recorded interviews, DeGuerin showed that Chavin had given prosecutors a range of descriptions of what Durst said in response to the question about Berman.
In one interview, Chavin said Durst shrugged. Another time, he said, Durst mumbled something Chavin couldn’t understand. A third time, Durst allegedly said, “Next time,” when asked about Berman.
On the stand Friday, Chavin said he was covering up what happened out of loyalty to Durst. “I was waffling,” he said at one point. “I’m clearly dodging, aren’t I?” he said at another.
“Everything I say is a cover-up,” he told the defense attorney.
DeGuerin suggested Chavin was testifying against Durst now to curry favor with Douglas Durst, Robert Durst’s brother. The two brothers are said to hate each other, but Douglas Durst leads the family’s sprawling real estate business and could send advertising work to Chavin.
In one recorded interview, Chavin told prosecutors that his business “depends upon goodwill” from Douglas Durst. “I want to do everything in my power to … have Douglas Durst feel the best about me.”
DeGuerin played an hour-long interview from July 2015 in which Chavin angrily complains about prosecutors having called his wife, Teresa Chavin. In her interview, Teresa Chavin apparently had said her husband told her of Durst’s confession.
On the recording, Chavin tells Lewin that his wife is a hysteric who makes things up and that he lied to her about what Durst had said.
“I’m a terrible liar. I’m in advertising,” Chavin says on the recording. “I’m a professional liar.”
On the stand Friday, Chavin insisted that he was covering up what Durst had said out of loyalty to his friend.
But now, he told Lewin after DeGuerin finished, he wants to tell the truth out of loyalty to Berman.
“Look, I want to get it out,” he said in court. “Nothing is going to change my mind about this, not even the fear of death. I went through a horrible time over this.”
At the conclusion of the hearing, Superior Court Judge Mark E. Windham set the next hearing in the case for April 25, to consider evidence-suppression and other motions and to hear advance testimony from four more witnesses.