LOS ANGELES — Robert Durst, the multimillionaire real estate heir who seemed to confess to three murders on the HBO documentary The Jinx, was sentenced Thursday to life in prison without the possibility of parole for murdering his friend Susan Berman in 2000.
Durst, now 78 and in poor health, was found guilty of murder on Sept. 17 as well as lying in wait and killing a witness, “special circumstances” that mandate the harshest possible sentence. (California has a moratorium on the death penalty.)
By finding the special circumstance regarding killing a witness true, the jury signaled that they believed prosecutors’ arguments that Durst had also killed his first wife, Kathleen McCormack Durst, in 1982. At trial, prosecutors argued that Durst gunned down Berman because she had helped him cover up the earlier killing, and Durst believed she was about to implicate him to police. Kathie Durst’s body has never been found.
In emotional victim impact statements, Berman’s family talked about their devastation after her death, defended her character, and praised her loyalty — while pleading with Durst to tell the McCormack family what happened to Kathie Durst and where they could find her body.
Davey Berman, Susan Berman’s 79-year-old cousin — whose family she had lived with after the death of her father, a famous Las Vegas mobster — broke down sobbing in court when he talked about the “special bond” he shared with his cousin. He said Durst “should let us know where Kathie’s body is so her family could get some closure.”
Sareb Kaufman, who with his sister was raised by Berman and referred to her as his mother, pushed back against how Durst’s attorneys had portrayed her during the trial.
“She was not lazy or conniving or a gold digger,” Kaufman said. “Because of Robert Durst and a deep love and sense of protection for her family, she made a mistake.”
Kaufman had discovered critical evidence that was featured prominently in The Jinx. An envelope addressed by Durst and saved by Berman was a virtual duplicate of the “cadaver note” envelope, which first alerted police that Berman had been killed. Both misspelled “Beverly Hills” with an extra “e,” and filmmaker Andrew Jarecki confronted Durst with them in the Jinx’s shocking finale. Moments later, Durst said he “killed them all” as he mumbled to himself in a bathroom.
“I was fortunate to finally solve Susan Berman’s murder,” Kaufman said on Thursday.
But neither that triumph nor Durst’s conviction can make up for what he’s lost, he said.
“I can’t describe the PTSD or nervous breakdowns I’m still trying to recover from,” Kaufman said, adding that since Berman’s murder, his life has been a nightmare.
“You didn’t just murder Kathie, or Morris, or Susan,” Kaufman said. “You also murdered me.”
Though Durst was not charged in her death, much of the trial had focused on Kathie Durst and her disappearance. Durst’s defense aggressively victim-shamed her, portraying her without evidence as a promiscuous social climber whose drug problem was causing her to flunk out of medical school. Her family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors, however, said she was a victim of domestic violence and was terrified that Durst was going to kill her. Even Durst himself admitted assaulting her.
In spite of the prominence of her story in the trial, her family members were not allowed to address the court with victim impact statements. An attorney for the family has said it is outrageous that the McCormacks were denied a chance to confront Durst in court after decades without justice, the LA Times reported. “I know I did not hear from the McCormack family,” Judge Mark Windham acknowledged after handing down the sentence, but he added, “I just wish you peace going forward from this.”
Durst previously beat a murder charge in the death of Morris Black, his neighbor in Galveston, Texas. Despite Durst’s admission that he had killed the 71-year-old and dismembered his body in September 2001, a jury acquitted him based on an argument of self-defense.
In 2015, The Jinx brought renewed attention to his crimes. Durst was arrested in New Orleans the day before the finale, and he’s remained in jail since. He was extradited to LA in November 2016 and has been housed in a medical ward at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in downtown LA, which houses incarcerated people with medical issues. Because he had been exposed to someone with COVID, Durst was in isolation and was not in court when the verdict was read last month.
Durst never expected to live as long as he has. In a March 2015 jailhouse interview with prosecutor John Lewin in New Orleans — the day the Jinx finale aired — Durst said his doctors told him he had five years to live. He’s beaten that estimate by more than a year, and while his attorneys have said they'll file an appeal, Thursday’s sentencing all but ensures he’ll be spending his final days in custody.
“Mr. Durst is almost certainly never going to see the light of day,” Lewin said in closing remarks on Thursday, adding he hopes that Durst finally does something “selfless” and admits what he did to his first wife.
Kaufman echoed that hope, describing it as the only thing of value Durst could do before his death.
“In telling where Kathie is,” he said, “you can find some small redemption.”
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