Every month, we like to have a little fun and explore the hypothetical legal situation featured in pop culture. This month we’ll be doing things a little differently by exploring a pop culture phenomenon that also happens to be a true story -Robert Durst and the evidence uncovered against him in HBO’s The Jinx. While this issue has been covered in great detail by the media, we believe most people interested in the case would benefit by looking at the case through the eyes of a criminal defense attorney in Vista, California.
For those still unfamiliar with the case, Robert Durst is a millionaire real heir who is suspected in as many as five murder investigations. He has faced trial for one of those murders in Galveston, Texas, where he was acquitted on the grounds of self-defense despite admittedly killing his neighbor, dismembering the corpse and throwing the pieces in the bay. He recently starred in an HBO documentary, where he stated (while in the bathroom believing his microphone to be off, “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.” He has since been arrested and charged with the murder of his former friend, Susan Berman. After the documentary, police started investigating him in the murder of two additional cold cases.
While Durst may still be charged with the three other open murder cases, we’ll be focusing on his upcoming trial and more specifically with the two major pieces of evidence uncovered by the film crew. The greater piece of evidence in the documentary is a letter, discovered by Susan Berman’s stepson, that Robert wrote to Susan in 1999. The address on the envelope is written in block letters that appear strikingly similar to a letter sent to police that notified them of the woman’s death. Experts and Durst himself agree that the letter to the police could only have been written by the killer. Producers of The Jinx brought the two letters to a forensic hand writing expert, who determines that down to the misspelling of the word “Beverley,” the distinctions found in the letters “are unique to one person and only one person.”
So will the letter be admissible in court and does it conclusively prove that Durst wrote the note that alerted police to Susan Berman’s corpse? The answer to the first question is very likely “yes.” While Durst’s attorneys will most likely argue against the evidence, film makers took special care to ensure that the letter could be used by police investigators later on. Their Vista criminal defense attorneys told them that turning the letter in too soon could make them be considered law enforcement agents, possibly jeopardizing the materials admissibility. As a result, filmmakers copied the letter for analysis and then put in in a protective bag and stored it in a safe deposit box. Because they were careful to maintain the chain of custody and to ensure they could not be considered law enforcement agents, chances are the letter will be admitted into court.
As to whether the letter proves Durst’s guilt, that will be up to the jury to decide. It was strong enough evidence for investigators to re-open the case, but while prosecutors will most certainly find a forensic expert that agrees with the one used by the film makers, who concluded it absolutely matched Robert’s handwriting, a good defense attorney in Vista should be able to raise questions about that. They may not only get the prosecutor’s expert to admit that forensic handwriting is not 100% accurate 100% of the time, but they may also bring in their own forensic expert who disagrees with the findings of the other expert. While this technique isn’t used in most murder trials seen by criminal lawyers in Vista, Robert Durst certainly has the money and his team certainly has the experience to raise questions in the jury’s mind regarding the letter.
Lastly, the matter of Robert’s bathroom confession remains a hotly debated topic among criminal attorneys in Vista and the rest of the country. Generally speaking, many lawyers believe the recording was made when the defendant believed he had a right to privacy and believed the microphone to be turned off, while others believe that as long as the tape has not been tampered with -it’s fair game because Robert did have the microphone on and it was his responsibility to remove it before expecting any privacy. Regardless of whether or not this “confession” is admitted into court though, it probably won’t make much of a difference in the case.
Durst’s Vista defense attorneys are already negating the impact of the statement by reminding the public that we all say things we don’t mean under our breath. Additionally, Durst’s confession was hardly phrased in a conclusive manner. By saying, “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course,” Durst said a hypothetical statement that could just as easily be interpreted as a confession as being a sarcastic jab at the film crew who obviously believes he is guilty. Ultimately, it’s unlikely that the trial will really hinge on something the defendant said offhandedly to himself in a bathroom.
So will Robert Durst be found guilty? Only time will tell. There is a wealth of evidence against him, but he has already successfully fought one murder charge and his legal dream team could do it again. The story does teach us one valuable lesson though -never agree to speak to anyone without your Vista defense attorney at your side. If you believe you are under investigation for any crime, please call Vista defense lawyer Peter M. Liss at (760) 643-4050 to schedule a free initial consultation.