US tycoon Robert Durst on trial for killing best friend

Prosecutors allege Durst murdered Berman so she couldn’t be a witness in the disappearance of his wife Kathleen. (AP pic)

LOS ANGELES: An eccentric US real estate tycoon accused of the 2000 murder of his best friend finally went on trial Wednesday in California, in a case that gained new momentum after his participation in a 2015 HBO documentary series.

Robert Durst, 76, has pleaded not guilty to the charge that he shot Susan Berman in the back of the head, execution-style, in 2000 at her home in Los Angeles.

“The evidence is going to show without question that Susan knew her killer, and that she freely and voluntarily admitted this person into her house,” Deputy District Attorney John Lewin told jurors in his opening statement.

Prosecutors allege that Durst murdered Berman, a crime writer, in December 2000 to prevent her from being questioned by New York police over the disappearance of his wife Kathleen in 1982.

Berman, the daughter of a Las Vegas mobster, had acted as a spokeswoman for Durst after he became a suspect in the disappearance of his wife, who vanished from the couple’s New York cottage.

Durst was arrested in March 2015 in a New Orleans hotel room in connection with Berman’s murder, hours before the final episode of the six-part HBO documentary “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst”.

The series delved into the disappearance of his wife as well as the killing of Berman and the 2001 death of a neighbour in Texas who was found dismembered.

At the time of the 2001 murder, Durst was living under an assumed name in Texas and pretended to be a mute woman. He claimed self-defence and was acquitted after a high-profile trial.

In the HBO documentary’s explosive finale, Durst is heard muttering to himself, “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course” – apparently unaware that a wireless microphone remained switched on while he used the bathroom.

Durst has repeatedly denied killing his wife or Berman.

However, Lewin said the murder scene pointed to Durst’s involvement.

He explained to jurors the killer had sent a cryptic note to Beverly Hills police – before her body was found – with Berman’s address and the word “cadaver”.

In “The Jinx,” Durst was shown another letter he once sent Berman – the handwriting appeared to be nearly identical to that seen in the “cadaver” note.

Durst’s defence team has said that their client had written the note to police but argue that this did not mean he killed Berman.

Lewin added that Berman lived in a low-crime area of Los Angeles, and that there was no indication of a burglary or a struggle at her home when police found her body.

The trial in Los Angeles is expected to last several months, with opening statements possibly going into next week.