Eccentric Heir Opens Texas Murder Defense
JUAN A. LOZANO
Oct. 23, 2003
GALVESTON, Texas (AP) _ Eccentric New York real estate heir Robert Durst took the stand as the first defense witness at his murder trial, telling jurors why he tried to live as a woman and describing the aggressiveness he saw in the neighbor he is accused of killing.
Durst said Robert Black, 71, first visited his $300-a-month apartment the evening of March 9, 2001, to watch television and spent the time complaining loudly and dictating what they would watch.
``He sort of took over the remote control, he was very active in changing the channels,'' Durst said. ``It was a little bit disconcerting.''
But Durst said he got accustomed to his neighbor's ways and they often watched television together and drank Jack Daniels whiskey. They had first met a year earlier when Durst was disguised as a mute woman, but Durst said they didn't spend time together until after he dropped the masquerade.
Durst, 60, a son of New York skyscraper tycoon Seymour Durst, was arrested in October 2001, accused of intentionally shooting Black the month before and attempting to hide the crime by cutting up the body and throwing the parts into Galveston Bay.
He was released on $300,000 bail, but then failed to appear for arraignment. He was arrested the following month in Bethlehem, Pa., where authorities said he tried to shoplift a sandwich from a grocery store even though he had $500 in his pocket.
Durst's attorneys contend their client accidentally shot Black in the face as they struggled for a gun after Black illegally entered his apartment.
On Wednesday, jurors spent nearly 20 minutes touring the shoreline where nearly all of Black's body parts, except for his head, were discovered. The parts washed ashore in trash bags that also contained a receipt with Durst's name on it.
Defense attorneys hoped the trip would convince jurors authorities didn't search a large enough area and that Black's head _ which could determine the cause of death _ easily could have been lost.
One juror took notes while another threw some debris into the water to see what it would do.
The trial, which began with jury selection on Aug. 26, is expected to last through at least October. Durst faces five to 99 years in prison if convicted.
During more than three hours of testimony Wednesday, Durst told jurors he left New York for Galveston to escape publicity after an investigation was reopened into the 1982 disappearance of his first wife, Kathleen. He said he started to panic and had to get away.
``I think I must have been out of my mind,'' Durst said as his defense began after four weeks of prosecution witnesses.
In his female disguise, the real estate heir used the name Dorothy Ciner, a childhood friend.
Durst drew laughter from jurors when he described the difficulty of living as a woman. He said he once entered the men's restroom at a library and another time set his wig on fire while at a bar.
Speaking in a low, raspy voice, he also talked about his life before moving to Galveston and his addiction to marijuana and alcohol. He told jurors he never had many friends or a good relationship with his wealthy family, and that he developed a habit of starting ``great, elaborate conversations'' with himself.
``When I realize I am doing it, I stop,'' he said.
Durst was also the main figure in a Los Angeles police probe into the Christmas Eve 2000 shooting death of a friend, writer Susan Berman, who was found dead just before she was to be questioned about Kathleen Durst's disappearance.
Before testimony resumed Wednesday, attorneys argued several defense motions, including one to end the trial because prosecutors had failed to prove their case. State District Judge Susan Criss denied the motion and didn't immediately rule on another that requested jurors see an animated video during Durst's testimony to illustrate his version of what happened.