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The Case Against Heir Goes to Jury

November 06, 2003|Lianne Hart | Times Staff Writer

GALVESTON, Texas — After six weeks of often grisly testimony, jurors on Wednesday began deliberating the central questions in the murder trial of New York real estate heir Robert Durst: Did Durst intentionally kill his neighbor, Morris Black, then dismember him to get rid of the evidence? Or did Black die in an accidental shooting?

Prosecutors told jurors in closing statements that Durst, 60, is a man without a conscience whose actions before and after the killing point to his guilt. "Murderers destroy the evidence, dump them in other locations and flee. And that's exactly what this defendant did," Galveston County Dist. Atty. Kurt Sistrunk said.

Defense lawyers argued that prosecutors failed to prove Durst deliberately killed Black. There is no evidence that Durst pulled the trigger, said defense lawyer Dick DeGuerin, and none discounting his assertion of self-defense. "There is no motive and nothing to gain for Bob Durst to kill Morris Black," DeGuerin said.

Durst is the multimillionaire son of a late real estate mogul whose company owns many Manhattan skyscrapers and helped redevelop Times Square. In 2000, Durst posed as a mute woman and rented a cheap apartment in Galveston after New York authorities reopened a decades-old investigation into his first wife's disappearance.

During nearly five hours of closing arguments on Wednesday, jurors heard competing versions of what happened in Durst's apartment on Sept. 28, 2001.

Durst maintains that Morris, known to be volatile and ill-tempered, pointed a gun at him. As the two scuffled, the pistol accidentally went off, hitting Black in the face, Durst has testified. Panicked and fearful that police would not believe the word of a cross-dressing millionaire who lived in a run-down apartment, Durst decided to get rid of the body by severing Black's limbs, stuffing them into garbage bags and tossing them into the sea.

"I said it was bizarre to begin with. It's too bizarre to make up," defense lawyer Mike Ramsey said. "If he's going to cover something up, why doesn't he just leave town? It was certainly not a cool, calculated plan.

"When you reasonably anticipate that your life is in danger -- a fellow swinging a gun at you -- you have a right to react," Ramsey said.

Durst admits he dismembered Black, cleaned up the blood and fled. He might later face charges of tampering with evidence, desecrating a corpse or jumping bail, his lawyers said. But the only issue facing jurors now is whether Durst intentionally killed Black. "What reason is there in this case for Bob Durst to have invited Morris Black into his apartment in order to execute him?" Ramsey asked jurors.

"The [prosecution] needs you to suspend common sense and reason and react solely on blind emotion," defense lawyer Chip Lewis said. "All the state wants to talk about is emotionally charged subjects like bow saws and hollow-point bullets. Those are all emotional Hail Marys. That's all they have left."

Prosecutors dismissed Durst's account as the story of a liar who "has demonstrated over and over that he cannot tell the truth.... Yet you're supposed to believe what he tells you?" prosecutor Joel Bennett asked.

Black knew Durst's true identity and "became a problem," Sistrunk said. "Morris Black in his own way became a solution to the problem, and the solution was murder." Black, a loner with no relatives in the area, was "the perfect victim. He could just vanish," Sistrunk said.

"Do you think he really didn't have a plan? If Morris Black were standing here right now, he'd say two words to Robert Durst, and one of them is 'bull,' " Sistrunk shouted.

The state does not have to prove motive, Sistrunk said. "How do you look to disprove self-defense when there's no evidence there?" he added, referring to quarts of human blood so thoroughly cleaned from the apartment that only tiny specks and what leaked beneath the floorboards remained.

If convicted, Durst faces between five and 99 years in prison.

California police also want to talk to Durst about the death of Susan Berman, a Los Angeles writer killed in December 2000. She knew Durst and was killed shortly before she was to be questioned about his missing wife.

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