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Prosecutors say Durst planned killing; defense claims accident

By John Springer

Robert Durst, center, speaks with his attorneys Dick DeGuerin, right, and Chip Lewis Thursday.
Robert Durst, center, speaks with his attorneys Dick DeGuerin, right, and Chip Lewis Thursday.

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GALVESTON, Texas (Court TV) -- After listening to lawyers argue for six hours over whether the dismemberment and disposal of 71-year-old Morris Black was relevant to their task, jurors went behind closed doors Wednesday to begin deliberating the fate of millionaire murder defendant Robert Durst.

Prosecutors contend that Durst, 60, is a lying murderer like none they have encountered before in this Gulf Coast community. Using phrases like "butcher" and "habitual liar," they highlighted for jurors more than 50 specific lies he told and at least nine aliases he used. Their goal: to get the panel to reject Durst's story that Black was shot during a struggle for a gun.

Defense lawyers, meanwhile, blamed the whole thing on Westchester County, New York, District Attorney Jeanine Pirro. Durst testified that he wore a wig and posed as a mute woman when he rented the $300-a-month apartment next to Black's because he feared he was about to be indicted for the 1982 disappearance of his first wife. His fear, they said, was based on things Pirro was telling New York City tabloid reporters at the time.

"She's got no case. Never has and never will," attorney Mike Ramsey, one of three defense lawyers Durst paid more than $1.2 million, told the jury. "If Ms. Pirro had kept her mouth shut, none of this would have happened."

Jurors left the courthouse for the evening after spending 80 minutes in the deliberation room. They selected a juror, one of four men on the 12-member panel, to serve as foreperson.

Durst admits that Black died in his apartment from a bullet fired by his gun. He also admits that he dismembered the body, cleaned up all the blood and any trace that Black ever existed, and then headed out of town with $600,000 in cash.

The defense insists that prosecutors, lacking real evidence, are appealing to juror's emotions by showing numerous photos of Black's body parts. A newspaper address label found among the body parts, which surfaced in garbage bags in Galveston Bay, led police to Durst.

Taking turns, three defense lawyers formed a tag team to convince jurors that prosecutors cannot prove that Durst's finger pulled the trigger of the .22-caliber Ruger with which Black was shot. With no motive, eyewitness or physical evidence to prove the death wasn't an accident, jurors have to acquit Durst of knowingly and intentionally killing Black, they argued.

"The law is the law, and you are here to enforce the law," said Ramsey, the second defense lawyer in the lineup. "There are two competing theories of reality here as to what happened ... This is an odd situation. It's not a murder situation."

Prosecutor Kurt Sistrunk, the elected district attorney for Galveston County, became animated several times during his remarks. The bearded lawyer raised his voice, pointed at Durst and told jurors not to buy the lies "Honest Bob" tried to sell them during his four days on the witness stand.

"How many 'I don't knows' did we hear?" Sistrunk said, referring to Durst's testimony that he was drunk on whiskey and could not remember cutting up the body. "It is it 'I don't know' or 'I just can't tell you the truth because you're going to find me guilty of murder?'"

Responding to the defense's suggestion that Durst had no motive to kill Black, Sistrunk reminded jurors of the many things Durst did that defy reason -- the dismemberment, disguises, aliases and others. He said juries would go crazy if they tried to figure out rational reasons for killers' actions.

"There is a reason we don't have to prove motive," he said, "because if we did killers like this one would walk out of courtrooms all over the state."

At another point, Sistrunk responded to Ramsey's argument that prosecutors weren't making sense when they suggested that Durst killed Black so he could assume his identity.

"So what, does he walk? Does he walk out of here because it doesn't make sense? I don't think so," Sistrunk said.

Before Sistrunk got the last word, lead defense lawyer Dick DeGuerin portrayed Durst as a victim of a frenzied tabloid press and an ambitious district attorney in New York. He also tried to explain away Durst's total lack of emotion on the witness stand by reminding jurors of his troubled life, despite owning a quarter interest in a real estate empire worth billions.

"Bob Durst has trouble showing emotion. Bob Durst feels deeply. He has feelings," DeGuerin said. "I like Bob."

Although he did not live up to his promise during his opening statement to call psychiatrists to testify about how Durst could cut up the body but not remember, DeGuerin explained that it should have been clear to jurors from Durst's testimony that he is a bit off.

"I don't think it takes a Ph.D. to see Bob Durst's compass doesn't point north," said the cowboy-boot wearing Texan with distinctive white hair. "Bob has problems. He has had problems all his life."

Sistrunk made a note of the comment and reprised it later. "'Bob's had problems all his life.' That may be, but Bob is also a murderer. What Bob doesn't have is problems with guns and knives and saws."

Durst blinked nonstop but otherwise did not react when prosecutor Joel Bennett started the day by listing more than 50 lies the defendant told and at least nine aliases he used. Bennett went through Durst's testimony bit by bit to make a case that Durst had been preparing to kill Black and leave Galveston for weeks beforehand.

"You don't cut somebody up, bag them ... dump them in the bay when you act in self-defense. It just doesn't happen," Bennett said. "You can't plan to have an accident. You can't plan to act in self-defense. That's the evidence in this case."

Prosecutors also argued that Durst's self-defense claim should not be believed because he removed any evidence from his apartment that might have supported it. Had Durst not disposed of Black's head (which was never found), for example, it would have provided information about how he was shot.

"Their case is based on what he says and they want you to believe him," Bennett said. "The man sitting before you cannot tell you the truth and you cannot trust anything he says. He has demonstrated over and over that he is a liar."

DeGuerin acknowledged that Durst told many lies but argued that most of them were to further his flight from the Westchester district attorney and to avoid prosecution in Galveston because he thought no one would believe him.

"What he did after Morris Black was dead does not change how Morris Black died," DeGuerin said. "Bob Durst is not guilty of murder. Whatever else he may have done are for another time or place."

If convicted of the sole count of murder, Durst faces 99 years in prison, Texas' equivalent of a life sentence. The defense insisted that jurors not be allowed to consider any lesser-included charges such as manslaughter.

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