LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Jury selection began on Wednesday in the Los Angeles murder trial of Robert Durst, the ailing New York real estate scion whose arrest prosecutors say was hastened by his confession to multiple killings in the 2015 TV documentary “The Jinx.”
Durst, 76, is charged with the December 2000 murder of his long-time confidant, Susan Berman, a writer he is accused of fatally shooting because of what she might have known about the unsolved disappearance and presumed killing of his wife two decades earlier.
The trial is likely to run for about five months, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Mark Windham told prospective jurors assembled in the courtroom on Wednesday. He plans to seat 12 jurors and 12 alternates in a selection process that could last the better part of two weeks.
Opening statements are not expected until March.
Durst, appearing frail, briefly stood from his wheelchair, steadied with help from two of his lawyers, as his lead attorney, Dick DeGuerin, introduced him in the packed courtroom. DeGuerin told Reuters earlier that his client, who has pleaded not guilty, suffers from a number of “severe” health problems.
He faces a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted.
Berman, 55, was found slain execution-style in her Beverly Hills home a couple of months after police in New York were reported to have reopened an investigation into the fate of Durst’s spouse, Kathleen, who was a medical student when she vanished in 1982.
Durst, the multimillionaire grandson of a Manhattan real estate magnate, has been questioned by investigators about his wife while insisting he had nothing to do with her disappearance. He was never prosecuted in that probe.
The circumstances surrounding both cases, as well as Durst’s 2003 acquittal in the killing and dismemberment of a Texas neighbor, gained wide attention in the six-part HBO documentary “The Jinx” nearly five years ago.
Durst was arrested on suspicion of Berman’s murder in March 2015, one day before the airing of the final episode, in which Durst seemed to incriminate himself after being confronted with a key piece of evidence.
He was captured by microphone after the interview muttering off-camera to himself: “There it is, you’re caught,” and “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.”
In court papers filed months later, prosecutors said they had moved quickly to secure Durst’s arrest upon learning he had “confessed to killing multiple people” in the documentary and might try to run once “The Jinx” finale was broadcast.
In ordering Durst to stand trial, the judge said in 2018 that Durst’s “cryptic” remark caught on mic “operates as a succinct confession” absent an explanation from the defendant.
Durst told authorities shortly after his arrest that he smoked marijuana daily and was under the influence of methamphetamine during his interview for “The Jinx.”
One item of physical evidence expected from prosecutors is an anonymous handwritten note mailed to the Beverly Hills Police Department. It contains Berman’s address and the word “cadaver” and is post-marked one day before her body was found.
Prosecutors have suggested in court papers that Durst, after killing Berman, sent the note hoping her body would be discovered soon enough for the Jewish writer to receive a swift burial in keeping with her faith.
The note and envelope misspelled Beverly Hills as “Beverley Hills” - a quirk that figured prominently in “The Jinx” after filmmakers obtained another envelope they said Durst had sent Berman with the same “Beverley” misspelling.
By Steve Gorman; Editing by Christopher Cushing and Tom Brown