Nov. 11 -- A millionaire fugitive never denied killing his next-door neighbor, yet a Texas jury found him not guilty of murder. NBC’s Jim Cummins reports.
updated 11/11/2003 11:42:59 AM ET 2003-11-11T16:42:59

A jury on Tuesday found eccentric millionaire real estate heir Robert Durst not guilty of murder in the death of an elderly neighbor whose dismembered remains he admitted dumping in Galveston Bay.

JURORS DELIBERATED over parts of five days, following nearly six weeks of testimony, before deciding that the real estate heir did not murder 71-year-old Morris Black, who lived across the hall from him in a low-rent apartment building.

Durst, 60, who is under suspicion in two other killings, testified in his own defense for nearly four days. He insisted that Black was shot accidentally during a struggle, and said that in a panic he then cut up the body. The victim’s head has never been found.

Durst appeared stunned when he heard the verdict from state District Judge Susan Criss, standing with his mouth slightly open and his eyes filling with tears. He hugged his attorneys afterward, saying: “Thank you so much.”

After the killing in late September 2001, Durst was a fugitive for six weeks until he was caught in Pennsylvania when he tried to shoplift a $5 sandwich even though he had $500 in his pocket.

At defense attorneys’ request, jurors considered only a murder charge. They could have asked that jurors consider a lesser charge, such as manslaughter, in addition to murder.

PROSECUTORS SAW CALCULATION

If he had been convicted, Durst faced from five to 99 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.

Prosecutors called Durst a calculating, cold-blooded killer who shot Black to steal his identity. They said all his actions afterward, including cutting up the body and twice fleeing Galveston, were part of an elaborate plan to hide his guilt.

District Attorney Kurt Sistrunk said Durst cut up Black’s body without hesitation, meticulously cleaned the crime scene, reserved a flight to leave the area and dumped the body but later returned to retrieve the head because it could identify his victim.

“Is it well planned and calculated? You bet it is,” Sistrunk said.

But defense attorneys contended Black was shot accidentally while the two men struggled for a gun after Durst found his neighbor illegally in his apartment. The defense said prosecutors failed to show jurors any motive for the killing or disprove self-defense.

“Whatever (Durst) did after Morris Black was dead cannot change how Morris Black died,” defense attorney Dick DeGuerin said in his closing statement. “You can’t convict Bob Durst simply because of that.”

After the verdict was read, DeGuerin praised jurors for “their ability to look at this case for what the charge was.”

Durst moved to Galveston in November 2000 disguised as a woman to escape scrutiny in New York after an investigation was reopened into the 1982 disappearance of his first wife, Kathleen. He used the name Dorothy Ciner, a childhood friend.

He met Black while wearing his disguise but later dropped the masquerade and they became friends.

Durst’s attorneys said the friendship soured because of the elderly man’s increasingly aggressive behavior. Durst and other witnesses testified Black often got into fights and arguments with people.

VICTIM’S ‘RAGES’ RECALLED

Neighbors “could hear Morris Black two blocks down the road when he was in his rages,” said Debra Monogan, who once lived upstairs from Black in South Carolina.

Prosecutors said Black was abrasive but not violent.

Durst took the stand and testified that he discovered Black in his apartment on Sept. 28, 2001, and that Black armed himself with a gun Durst had hidden. During a struggle, the weapon fired, hitting Black in the face, he said.

Durst testified he did not recall details about dismembering the body, but when pressed by a prosecutor he said he remembered “a nightmare with blood everywhere.”

“I remember like I was looking down on something and I was swimming in blood and I kept spitting up and spitting up and I don’t know what is real and I don’t know what is not real,” Durst said.

He said he preferred not to use the term “murder” to describe Black’s death.

“I like dying better. Killed implies like I killed him. I did not kill him,” Durst said.

“It was self-defense and an accident,” he said.

When he learned police had found some of Black’s remains, Durst said he fled to New Orleans with five pounds of marijuana and more than $500,000 in cash.

He returned to Galveston and was arrested. He posted bail and fled, and was captured six weeks later in Pennsylvania when he was caught trying to steal a $5 sandwich and bandages even though he had $500 in his pocket.

After he jumped bail, Galveston authorities learned he was wanted for questioning in his former wife’s disappearance and in the Christmas Eve 2000 shooting death in Los Angeles of a friend, writer Susan Berman, who was set to be questioned about his missing wife.

Durst’s family runs the Durst Organization, a privately held, billion-dollar New York company.

© 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments