Mafia daughters, squabbling lawyers open Durst murder trial
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Susan Berman was a “princess of Las Vegas” and a gangster's daughter who had her father's sense of loyalty and was deeply devoted to her best friend, the Manhattan real estate heir Robert Durst, a prosecutor said during opening statements Wednesday at Durst's trial on charges of killing Berman.
And she was a “paranoid woman” who “would never open her door to a stranger” and undoubtedly welcomed into her Beverly Hills home the person who shot her in the back of the head on Dec. 23, 2000, Deputy District Attorney John Lewin said.
“The evidence is going to show without question that Susan knew her killer," Lewin said.
He showed the jury crime scene photos of Berman's body, laying on her back on her bedroom floor in a white T-shirt and black pants, a pool of blood behind her head.
“She was unafraid," Lewin said. “She wasn't scared. And then she was executed.”
Durst, the 76-year-old multimillionaire, is charged with killing Berman, his longtime friend who acted as his unofficial spokeswoman amid decades of suspicion and media attention since the 1982 disappearance of his wife, Kathie Durst. Prosecutors are alleging that Robert Durst killed his wife, that Berman knew it and helped him cover his tracks, and that he turned on Berman and killed her just before New York police were to interview her in the reopened case.
Lewin gave multimedia biographies of Berman and both Dursts during opening statements, and in Berman's he showed photos from her Nevada childhood as he described her upbringing as the daughter of powerful gangster David Berman.
“She was kind of like the princess of Las Vegas," Lewin said. "Liberace would play at her birthday parties.”
But Lewin said her father instilled in her a sense that you stick with your friends at all costs, and led her to keep Durst's secrets for years.
“She adopted the idea from the mafia that you were always loyal to her friends," Lewin said. ”She maintained a strict code of honor."
He then played a clip of Berman's friend, film producer Lynda Obst, saying, "Loyalty was everything to Susan. She learned it from her father. It was the mafioso way.”
The courtroom quickly got tense and heated in the first hours of what's expected to be a very long trial, when Lewin took issue with constant objections from Durst's attorney Dick DeGuerin during his opening.
“I would ask that the counsel not object to things that have already been litigated in the middle of my opening!” Lewin finally shouted after one objection.
When DeGuerin began to talk over him, Lewin broke with courtroom decorum and yelled directly at the defense laywer.
“You present what you want to present and I’ll present what I want to present!" Lewin shouted.
Superior Court Judge Mark E. Windham, who had told the courtroom “fasten your seat belts” when he began the trial earlier in the day, tried to restore calm.
“Take a moment," Windham said. "Breathe."
Durst walked out of police custody and into the courtroom looking small, elderly and frail and taking tiny, shaky steps. Wearing a blue blazer, khakis and a hearing aid, he gave a little fist bump to DeGuerin, The Texas lawyer who won Durst's acquittal of the killing of his elderly neighbor in Texas in 2003 at a trial in which Durst took the stand and admitted to dismembering the body.
Durst said the neighbor, Morris Black, died by accident as he struggled with him with a gun. He has repeatedly denied killing his wife and Berman.
He is only charged with murdering Berman, but prosecutors are allowed to use evidence from the Black killing and Kathie Durst's disappearance to establish Durst's motive.
Durst sat silent in the courtroom, but his voice was heard throughout the opening statements in video clips from interviews, most of them from interviews in 2010 and 2011 filmed for “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst,” an HBO documentary series in which Durst's statements helped lead to his 2015 arrest.
“Much of the most damaging evidence is going to come directly from Mr. Durst himself, out of his own mouth,” Lewin said. “Mr. Durst will admit to things that most people will never admit to. He will concede things that most people would deny. ”
Lewin cast Durst as a careless scion of a New York real estate magnate who didn't think rules applied to him, playing interview clips where Durst describes using food stamps despite his wealth, belching during business meetings or shoplifting water bottles out of defiance of social norms.
“I can do what I want, there’s nothing anybody can do about it, tough,” Durst said in one clip, describing his attitude as a young man.
“That idea, that way of operating in life dictated not just how he treated people, but how he treated them when he got rid of them,” Lewin said.
Follow AP Entertainment Writer Andrew Dalton on Twitter: https://twitter.com/andyjamesdalton