LOS ANGELES -- The judge in the murder case against multimillionaire Robert Durst has agreed to allow early testimony from two witnesses, finding Friday there is evidence that at least one of them is in possible danger.
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Mark Windham ruled that the witnesses can give testimony in a public hearing on Feb. 14, far ahead of Durst’s trial.
Durst, an estranged member of a New York real estate empire, has pleaded not guilty to one count of first-degree murder in the 2000 fatal shooting of his friend and one-time spokeswoman, Susan Berman.
Prosecutors accuse Durst of killing her because she was prepared to speak with police about his wife Kathleen Durst’s 1982 disappearance in New York.
“That man kills witnesses,” prosecutor John Lewin said of Durst. “When pushed into a corner, he murders people.”
The 73-year-old Durst, sitting in a wheelchair about five feet away, quietly chuckled to himself as Lewin spoke.
Durst’s attorney, Dick DeGuerin, said secrecy surrounding the unidentified witnesses forces him to shadowbox.
He said allowing early testimony over fears of witness danger would be to presume that Durst killed his wife and Berman, and there’s no evidence of that.
In Friday’s ruling, Windham found that prosecutors had provided evidence showing that one unidentified witness could potentially be in danger, and should therefore be allowed to testify early. The other witness is being allowed to testify early because of his advanced age.
The judge ordered that the identity of the unidentified witness be disclosed to the defense 10 days before the February hearing. The defense will be able to cross-examine both witnesses.
The testimony will not be used if the witnesses are available to testify during Durst’s trial, which has not been scheduled.
Durst’s attorneys have argued in court papers that he doesn’t pose a danger because he’s frail and behind bars. They also accused the prosecution of trying to litigate the case in the news media.
“We’re in a very complicated case with experienced lawyers who are not going to sit by and say it’s OK to steamroll Mr. Durst,” said David Chesnoff, another Durst attorney.
Defense lawyers also contend the early testimony request was premature, coming before the scheduling of a preliminary hearing to determine if Durst faces trial, as well as a violation of his right to a fair trial.
“There is simply no factual basis upon which one could claim that Mr. Durst has the ability to harm anyone,” attorney Donald Re wrote in court documents.
Lewin has said that with Durst’s estimated $100 million fortune, he poses a serious threat to witnesses.
Prosecutors are taking an aggressive approach in publicly laying out their theory on the case before knowing if it will go to trial.
The defense has objected to some of the information prosecutors have revealed, including a transcript and recording of a nearly three-hour interrogation of Durst following his arrest in New Orleans in 2015.
One of the witnesses prosecutors will question on Feb. 14 is a doctor who may have been the last person to speak with Kathleen Durst. No charges have ever been brought in the suspected killing of Durst’s first wife, whose body has not been found.
Lewin may also call witnesses to the killing of Durst’s elderly neighbor in Galveston, Texas, in 2001. Durst was acquitted of murder after testifying that he shot Morris Black in self-defense and then chopped up the body and dumped it in the sea. He was convicted of tampering with evidence and jumping bail.
The prosecutor says Black was killed because he knew the identity of Durst, who had disguised himself in Texas as a mute woman.
Durst fled to Galveston after learning the investigation into his wife’s disappearance had been reopened in fall 2000, Lewin said.
Berman, who had served as an unofficial spokeswoman for Durst, was killed weeks later in her Los Angeles home before she was supposed to speak with police about that investigation.
Durst’s ties to the deaths and his wife’s disappearance were highlighted in a popular HBO documentary, The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst.”