Millionaire innocent of murder in dismemberment of neighbor

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

GALVESTON, Texas -- New York real estate heir Robert Durst, who said he accidentally killed a hotheaded neighbor in self-defense and then chopped up the body because he feared no one would believe him, was found innocent Tuesday of murder.

The jury took five days to reach the verdict, bringing a startling end to a grisly case that began to unfold when trash bags containing pieces of 71-year-old Morris Black started washing up along Galveston Bay in 2001.

Durst appeared stunned when he heard the verdict, his mouth hanging slightly open and his eyes filling with tears. The 60-year-old millionaire hugged his attorneys, saying: "Thank you so much."

Durst, who has been estranged from his family since the early 1990s, remains under suspicion in the 1982 disappearance of his first wife and the 2000 shooting death of her friend Susan Berman, a Los Angeles writer who was set to be questioned about the missing woman. He has not been charged in either case.

Prosecutor Kurt Sistrunk said he was dismayed and disappointed with the verdict.

If he had been convicted, Durst could have gotten five to 99 years in prison.

For now Durst will remain in jail facing a bail-jumping count, which could bring up to 10 years in prison.

Defense attorney Dick DeGuerin praised the jurors for "their ability to look at this case for what the charge was."

Prosecutor Joel Bennett said many jurors told him after the verdict that one of the problems in the case was that Black's head was never recovered. Prosecutors alleged that Durst made sure the head was never found because it could have proved Black's death was intentional.

Juror Chris Lovell said he was influenced by a lack of consistency in the prosecution's case: "From the very beginning of this trial the defense told us a story and they stuck to their guns all the way through. I did not believe everything they said, but every time they told us a story they were consistent in what was said."

Another juror, Deborah Warren, said the panel made a great effort to figure out what happened. "There were people that cried, there were people that fussed and argued. ... My stomach is still knotted up," she said.

Durst came under suspicion after a receipt with his name on it was found in the trash bags containing Black's remains.

Durst was arrested and posted $300,000 bond, but then fled. It was not until Durst made bail that authorities discovered he was a millionaire heir. He was a fugitive for six weeks before he was caught in Pennsylvania trying to shoplift a $5 sandwich even though he had $500 in his pocket.

Durst is the son of the late Seymour Durst, patriarch of the Durst Organization, a billion-dollar real estate company that owns several New York skyscrapers. The company declined to comment on the verdict.

Durst had moved to Galveston disguised as a woman after a New York investigation was reopened into the disappearance of his first wife, Kathleen.

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