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Accused real estate heir tries to fire lawyers over additional fees

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(Court TV) -- Feeling squeezed for another $600,000 by lawyers one month before his murder trial, millionaire Manhattan real estate heir Robert Durst asked a Galveston, Texas, judge for permission to fire his defense attorneys.

Durst, 60, indicated in a handwritten letter to District Court Judge Susan Criss July 13 that he had already paid $1.2 million in retainers to attorneys Dick DeGuerin and Michael Ramsey of Houston to defend him at the trial or any retrials.

"If it was just a question of money, I would pay the $600,000," Durst wrote in the two-page letter obtained by "However, if I made this payment I would not be able to be in a room with Dick DeGuerin or Mike Ramsey and hold my head up or look either individual in the eyes ... I am facing a murder trial which will determine if I spend the rest of my life in prison. How can I trust two individuals who treat me like this with my life."

Durst, a suspect in the 1982 disappearance of his first wife and the December 2000 murder of author Susan Berman, is charged with killing a 71-year-old neighbor in a rundown apartment house and tossing pieces of the dismembered body in Galveston Bay. He has pleaded not guilty by reason of self-defense/accident.

Criss, who is in the midst of pretrial hearings in the case, confirmed Tuesday that she received a written request from Durst to discharge his lawyers. Criss told that she summoned Durst and the lawyers to the courthouse immediately and urged them to talk out their differences.

"I brought them in. I spoke with Mr. Durst and told him, 'I'd like you to speak with them,'" Criss said. "He did and came back and said he wanted to withdraw."

DeGuerin, one of the most prominent lawyers in Texas, said a sweeping court mandate sent to every lawyer, witness and investigator involved in the case bars him from discussing the letter.

"I'm under a very strict gag order. I'm not allowed to discuss any aspect of the case," said DeGuerin, who heads up the defense team.

Ramsey downplayed the rift with Durst, saying it was only temporary. He declined to say how it was resolved.  "From our perspective, we can tell you there was a dispute, it was over in a day, it's not uncommon," Ramsey said. "It was a tempest in a teapot for one day and then it was over with."  

According to Durst's letter to the judge, the dispute began with a letter DeGuerin handed him after a court appearance July 11. "I was stunned," Durst said of the correspondence.

In that letter, which begins "Dear Bob," DeGuerin informed his wealthy client that out-of-pocket expenses above and beyond the original retainer had swelled to almost $235,000. He asked Durst to sign an amendment to the original agreement that called for Durst to pay DeGuerin and Ramsey $300,000 more each.

"Under the circumstances, I think it is fair that we ask for additional fees," DeGuerin wrote.

Criss said defendants often get nervous before a trial and question whether they have the right lawyers. "It's not unusual. This happens all the time," she said. "He withdrew it before I could act on it."

The defense asked the court Tuesday to withdraw any documents related to the discharge request from the court's files, according to Criss.

DeGuerin noted in the July 11 letter to Durst that the defense is conducting a mock trial and focus groups and promised to continue "to do our utmost in your behalf."

The burden of proof at the actual trial will be on the prosecution, but the defense may have assumed a sizable burden of its own by claiming self-defense/accident and acknowledging in open court that Durst shot Morris Black.

Police never found Morris Black's head, and there was no indication from any of the body parts discovered by fishermen floating in garbage bags that Durst's cantankerous neighbor had been shot.

Investigators followed a newspaper address label found in one of the garbage bags to an apartment house in Galveston that Durst had rented for $300 per month. Passing himself off as "Dorothy Ciner" -- the name of a high school classmate -- Durst wore women's clothing and a wig, and claimed to be mute when he took the apartment.

Police searched Black's apartment and found evidence that blood had been cleaned up.

Across the hall in "Ciner's" apartment, they found evidence of more cleanup and the tenant's true identity: Robert Durst.

Because there were no witnesses to what happened between Durst and Black, the defendant may have no choice but to take the witness stand during his trial. DeGuerin indicated as much in his July 11 letter when citing "increased time spent on preparation for your testimony" as one of the additional costs.

Criss has already ruled that the trial will not include any mention of the 1982 disappearance of 29-year-old Kathie Durst from New York or the December 24, 2000, execution-style slaying of writer Susan Berman in her Los Angeles home.

Durst remarried after obtaining a secret divorce in 1990 from the still-missing Kathie Durst, a medical student who friends say wanted out of an abusive marriage. Berman, the daughter of a Las Vegas mob figure, was one of Robert Durst's closest friends and sometimes served as his spokesperson during the early days of the missing person investigation.

Jury selection is scheduled to begin August 25 in Galveston.

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