In what should come as a surprise to absolutely no one, real estate heir, convicted murderer and suspected serial killer Robert Durst died Monday at the age of 78 in a hospital in Northern California. Durst died of natural causes barely three months after he was sentenced in a Los Angeles court to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He was convicted of killing his best friend, Susan Berman, whom he shot point-blank in her Beverly Hills home in 2000.
Durst didn’t care a whit about the lives of those he snuffed out. Why should I care about his?
Durst’s death comes as no surprise because he was terminally ill. According to court records submitted by Cedars-Sinai nephrologist Keith Klein, who was hired by Durst’s defense team to be an expert witness, Durst suffered from “cardiac, pulmonary, gastrointestinal, muscular, skeletal, nutrition and kidney illnesses.” In July 2021, he presciently wrote, “While Mr. Durst has a litany of chronic medical conditions, several are of such severity that his death in the next six months would not be surprising.”
Indeed, throughout his incarceration ahead of and during the trial, Durst would be hospitalized multiple times. Shortly after his sentencing, he was back in the hospital and on a ventilator after contracting Covid-19, though he managed to survive. During the trial, hunched in the wheelchair to which he’d been confined, wearing his huge Mr. Magoo glasses, he looked like a tiny, pale goblin.
I know this first-hand because for several months in 2017, I was assigned to report on hearings connected to the trial that eventually started in March 2020. Fearing that both Durst and some witnesses would not live long enough, those over the age of 65 were called to give testimony ahead of time.
Day after day I sat there, barely 10 feet from Durst, watching a withered old man being wheeled in. Day after day he remained emotionless, his eyes blank. He often fell asleep. Being in such close proximity to him, despite his frailty, I felt evil emanating out of those cold, dead eyes.
Durst had managed to evade justice in 2001 after admitting to shooting and killing his friend and neighbor Morris Black and dismembering his body. (Durst claimed self-defense.) At the time of his death, Durst also was awaiting trial in New York in the murder and disappearance of his first wife, Kathie Durst, who went missing in 1982.
So many people waited decades for Durst to stand trial. Families were destroyed by his actions. People needed justice. And yet, there is a very real provision in our legal system that requires us to determine whether someone is fit to stand trial.
Klein believed he wasn’t, and as much as I wanted to dismiss his position, by the time Durst’s trial started in 2020, I found I couldn’t. Back in 2017, Durst’s physical deterioration was clearly visible, but I never got the sense that his mental capacities were in any way impaired. However, more than four years later, his condition had changed.
“One only has to look at Mr. Durst sitting in a wheelchair, smelling of urine, with diminished capacity to carry on a conversation, frail, weak, pale, cachectic, and can only be astounded that he is being transported daily to sit in a courtroom all day in a wheelchair, wearing a diaper, and expected to understand all the discourse, much less survive the legal process,” Klein wrote in arguing that Durst be sent to a hospital rather than jail, where he offered to treat him free of charge (even though it would have meant an end to his expert witness fees). “The thought that he may have to testify and be cross-examined is beyond the pale.”
Klein was willing and able to look beyond the horror of Durst’s crimes (and alleged crimes) and do what he saw as his duty — to uphold his Hippocratic oath. I’d like to think I’ve also always believed that just as everyone deserves a fair trial, everyone whose health makes them unfit shouldn’t be forced to go through one. But Durst didn’t care a whit about the lives of those he snuffed out. Why should I care about his?
I don’t know if I would have had a ready answer had not Durst, Klein and myself formed a bizarre triangle. In one of those “only in L.A.” coincidences, Klein has been my nephrologist for the past 15 years.
I suffer from polycystic kidney disease, a progressive hereditary condition that results in eventual kidney failure. The only cure is a kidney transplant. I am now at Stage 5 (end-stage kidney disease) and am potentially days away from receiving the final go-ahead that my living donor is a match so I can get a life-saving transplant.
Over the years, Klein has been my champion, my cheerleader and my hand-holder as my disease has progressed. He has given me his cellphone number if I land in the ER. He’s visited me every time I’ve been in the hospital with complications. He’s whipped nurses and doctors and students into shape. He has fought with my insurance company. He has handed me endless tissues when I’ve cried over the myriad fears I’ve had because of this awful disease (and then told me the tissues are not covered by insurance so it’s going to be $20 per tissue, so am I ready to stop crying now?).
I’m not surprised that Klein was willing to put the care and well-being of a terminally ill man ahead of the damning evidence of a suspected serial killer. But were it not for Klein’s model in providing such care for Durst, I would probably have sided with the judge and demanded that the trial must go on.
Doctors don’t pick and choose who gets treated, nor should they. This may seem an anathema to some people. America still doesn’t have universal health care, and some see that as just fine. I don’t. Age, class, race, creed, finances and, yes, felony convictions should never determine a person’s care.
I feel comforted knowing that Klein will always put the health and well-being of all his patients first. After all, isn’t that what doctors should do?
Despite the media frenzy surrounding the trial and the decadeslong search for justice for Durst’s victims, Klein clarified for me that even though Durst may not have had a shred of humanity in him, that’s no excuse for us to relinquish ours.