A documentary producer whose work helped convict Robert Durst of the murder of his best friend 20 years ago believes the 78-year-old New York property scion may have feared he was a serial killer and wanted to be stopped.
“Durst is where he belongs and probably deep inside where he wants to be,” said Marc Smerling, who produced The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, a film by the director Andrew Jarecki, to the Guardian.
“He had a tremendous compulsion to confess.”
Durst’s participation in the documentary played a key role in the re-opening of the case in which he was ultimately convicted on Friday: the murder of Susan Berman, a friend Durst feared could connect him to the disappearance of his wife, Kathie Durst, in 1982.
Berman, the daughter of a Las Vegas mobster, was shot at point-blank range in the back of the head in her Los Angeles home in December 2000.
Authorities believe Durst also killed his wife, though her body was never found and he has never been charged in her death.
Durst was also accused of killing a neighbour, Morris Black, in Galveston, Texas while hiding from authorities the year after Berman’s death. He claimed self-defence and was found not guilty but was convicted of evidence tampering – for chopping up Black’s body and throwing parts into the sea.
Famously, towards the end of The Jinx, the documentary’s sound recordist captured Durst off camera, in a bathroom, muttering: “There it is. You’re caught! What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.” Transcripts of the full audio recording revealed that the quotes were edited into a new order, the New York Times reported.
Durst claimed he was “high on meth” during filming and said co-operating with filmmakers was a “very, very, very big mistake”.
He was not in court in Los Angeles on Friday when the verdict came down after seven hours of jury deliberations, as he was in isolation at a jail after being exposed to Covid-19. At sentencing on 18 October, he will face life without parole.
“Bob Durst has been around a lot of years and he’s been able to commit a lot of horrific crimes,” said John Lewin, a deputy district attorney. “Considering what he’s done, he got a lot more of a life than he was entitled to.”
Lewin said jurors thought prosecutors proved Durst killed Kathie Durst then murdered Berman and Black in an effort to escape justice.
Smerling said: “Durst reached out us, he sat down for those interviews, offered us boxes of records and ignored the advice of his lawyers. He opened his world to us.”
In doing so, he added, Durst opened himself to the arrest which came in New Orleans in 2015, the night before the airing of the final documentary episode.
“Bob Durst obviously knows that he’s not in control of himself,” Smerling said, “and he’s somewhere in between a serial killer and a passion murderer. Honestly, he’s probably relieved a little to be in the control of the prison system.”
Durst’s decision to testify in his own defense backfired. During cross-examination, he denied killing his wife and Berman. He also said he would lie if he had. Having denied being in Los Angeles at the time of Berman’s death, he testified at trial that he found her dead on a bedroom floor.
“Incredibly, he decided to take the stand in his defense against [an attorney] who probably knew the facts of the case better than he did,” Smerling said. “It was an astonishing cross-examination.”
The filmmakers also discovered evidence that connected Durst to an anonymous note which was sent to police, directing them to Berman’s body. Durst told them “only the killer could have written” the note. They then confronted him with a letter he’d sent Berman a year earlier in the same handwriting and with the same misspelling of “Beverley” for Beverly Hills.
On the witness stand, Durst confirmed that he sent police the note.
“It’s very difficult to believe, to accept, that I wrote the letter and did not kill Susan Berman,” he acknowledged.
Durst’s lawyer, David Chesnoff, said he believed there was “substantial reasonable doubt” and was disappointed in the guilty verdict. He said his client, who has an estimated $100m fortune, would pursue an appeal. The conviction could also give new impetus to a wrongful death civil suit brought by the family of Kathie Durst.
Smerling said the case and its examination in The Jinx offer salient instruction on how US justice works.
“If you watch it again it’s about how the rich get away with murder,” he said, “how they inoculate themselves against what normal people can’t.
“They can afford to hire the most expensive and connected legal and private investigative talent who are connected to law enforcement. They’re seeing everything that prosecutors are seeing.”