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Accused millionaire acted in fear, lawyer claims

By John Springer
Court TV

Robert Durst
Robert Durst

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GALVESTON, Texas (Court TV) -- Nagging questions weighed heavily on Robert Durst as he looked down at the dead man on his kitchen floor.

He was already under suspicion for his first wife's disappearance and the murder of his best friend. And now this man, his neighbor Morris Black, was dead in Durst's apartment, killed by a bullet from Durst's .22 automatic, and Durst was covered with blood.

"They're never going to believe me," Durst concluded, according to his lawyer, who gave his opening statement Monday in a hushed courtroom filled to the brim with reporters.

Durst, the millionaire heir to a New York real estate empire, claims he accidentally shot his 71-year-old neighbor in the face when the two struggled on the floor for Durst's gun.

The defense says Durst's past brushes with the media, a mild form of previously undiagnosed autism, and the trauma of seeing a dead body created a sort of psychological panic that enabled him to do the unthinkable. He cut up the dead body, stuffed the pieces in garbage bags and tossed them in Galveston Bay.

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Prosecutors, however, say Durst's actions in the days and weeks following the September 28, 2001, killing are those of a "cold and calculating killer." Galveston District Attorney Kurt Sistrunk told jurors that the evidence in Durst's trial, which is expected to last between four and six weeks, will show that Durst:

• Purchased trash bags and a tarp from a hardware store soon after the murder, and went back to his apartment to methodically cut off Black's head, arms and legs;

• Went to a Wal-Mart to buy a money order to pay Black's rent so that the landlord would not come looking for it;

• Threw the .22-caliber handgun and shell casing in the trash; and

• Fled Texas after making bail to avoid prosecution, and used Black's identification to rent a car in Alabama.

"He had his senses about him when he killed Morris Black and planned the rest of his actions," said Sistrunk.

Black's blood on floor

Durst, whose mental disorder sometimes causes him to talk to himself aloud, showed no emotion during the 30 minutes Sistrunk spoke and the 90 minutes two of his lawyers took to outline his defense.

Before the openings, Durst, wearing a granite-gray blazer over a light blue dress shirt, stood and answered a formal question put to him by Judge Susan Criss.

"I'm pleading not guilty, your honor. It was self-defense, an accident," said Durst, surrounded by six lawyers who towered over his frail, 5-foot 5-inch frame.

The prosecution's case is fairly straightforward. A fisherman found the garbage bags containing the body in the bay. Police found a newspaper address label inside one of the bags and followed the clue to the apartment house at 2213 Avenue K where Durst and Black lived side by side in $300-a-month apartments.

Durst's attempt to clean up the blood in his apartment had been far from effective. Knife holes in the tarp and linoleum allowed Morris Black's blood to seep out and set in the floor.

The heart of the prosecution's case is so-called "consciousness of guilt" evidence. By getting rid of the body, covering up the killing and jumping his $300,000 bond, Durst acted in ways a person aware of his guilt would do, Sistrunk pointed out in his opening statement.

The defense, however, has something the prosecution does not. They have Durst's firsthand account of what he says happened between the two men on the day of the killing, as well as in the weeks leading up to it. The key to his defense will be convincing jurors that prosecutors cannot prove that the killing was intentional, as required by law.

Soured friendship

According to defense attorney Richard DeGuerin, who is heading up a team of legal heavy hitters being paid more than $1.2 million by Durst, Morris Black was a penny-pinching bully who threatened anyone who crossed his path. Despite Black's reputation and brushes with the law, he and Durst struck up an unlikely friendship that included trips to nearby Pelican Island where the pair took turns shooting Durst's .22.

Durst even gave Black -- who owned few electrical appliances -- a key to his apartment so that he could watch television coverage of the September 11 terrorist attacks, DeGuerin told jurors.

Durst didn't mind the arrangement, according to the cowboy boot-wearing defense lawyer, until Black fired the .22-caliber range pistol in the apartment.

Durst demanded his key back, but Black came back like a bad penny. Durst returned home one day and heard his TV on inside. When he unlocked the door he found that Black had let himself in with a second key.

Durst, according to the defense, told Black that he could watch TV in his apartment only when he was home. While Durst was in the bathroom, he heard another gunshot in his apartment and kicked Black out again.

On the day of the killing, a Friday, Durst parked his car at a synagogue and jogged to his apartment to find Black once again watching television uninvited. Opening the door, Durst discovered Black sitting at the kitchen table holding the gun Durst had hidden after their last encounter, the defense claims.

Raising his voice and using another defense lawyer to illustrate what happened next, DeGuerin told jurors there was a struggle for control of the gun, both men fell to the floor and the gun discharged, killing Black.

"He said, 'Morris! Morris!'" DeGuerin related. "Morris didn't respond ... He could tell Morris was dead." Because his defense depends on it, Durst will almost certainly testify about what he says happened in his apartment that day two years ago.

Durst's defense

The defense, however, will call numerous other witnesses to relate encounters with Black, whom DeGuerin said walked around with a stick and a bad attitude. At the time of his death, police held a warrant for Black's arrest that stemmed from a complaint by staff at the local library that Black threatened to burn down the building.

DeGuerin said Black went to the library to use the Internet to buy reading glasses wholesale. He would offer them to homeless people but then take them back abruptly if the recipient seemed ungrateful or had alcohol on his breath, according to DeGuerin.

After DeGuerin outlined Durst's case for self-defense, defense lawyer Michael Ramsey addressed Durst's actions after the killing.

"The state's case is all about what happened after," Ramsey said, urging jurors to keep their eyes and ears on the justification for what he termed a "righteous shooting."

"He cut up Morris, puts him in the bags and threw him in the bay. That's what happened ... Does it change the fact that it was in self-defense? No," Ramsey said. "Is it bizarre and grotesque? Yes, but we're going to explain it to you."

With that, the prosecution began its case. With very little cross-examination from the defense, prosecutors raced through four civilian and police witnesses Monday afternoon who testified about the discovery of the bags containing the headless remains of Morris Black.

For the small corps of New York City tabloid reporters who traveled to Galveston, the most interesting information to come out of the opening statements appeared to be DeGuerin's description of Durst family infighting following his arrest.

Anticipating that prosecutors may introduce taped prison phone conversations between Durst and his second wife, Debrah Charatan, the defense told jurors that they may hear discussions on those tapes that might suggest the defense team had considered an insanity defense.

The defense claims that no such defense was ever considered and contends that the conversations had more to do with a fight for control of Durst's quarter-interest in the Durst organization's billions of dollars in holdings.

While Kathie Durst's 1982 disappearance and the ongoing investigation of the 2000 murder of Robert Durst's best friend, author-journalist Susan Berman, were mentioned in the defense's opening statement, further references are expected to be few and far between.

Although the judge ruled that prosecutors could not enter evidence of those two cases into this trial, it is not clear whether the defense's mention of those mysteries opens the door for prosecutors to ask Durst about them when he testifies later in the trial.

Testimony resumes Tuesday morning. If convicted of murder, Durst faces up to life in prison.

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