N.Y. heir acquitted in Texas killing

Man admitted butchering 71-year-old neighbor, said shooting was an accident

November 12, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Robert A. Durst, the millionaire real estate heir from New York who was living like a drifter in Texas, was acquitted yesterday of charges that he murdered a 71-year-old neighbor in Galveston two years ago.

Durst, 60, admitted killing Morris Black in September 2001, butchering him, putting his body parts in garbage bags and dumping them into Galveston Bay. But he steadfastly maintained that the death was the result of a struggle and not murder.

When the state jury in Galveston returned the not-guilty verdict in a courtroom scene televised nationwide, Durst looked stunned, his mouth agape, and then he looked upward as if in relief.

He hugged his lawyers and their assistants and then said, "Thank you so much." None of his relatives or friends appeared to be in the courtroom.

A conviction could have brought a prison sentence of up to 99 years and a fine of $10,000.

Prosecutors contended that Durst had plotted the killing to assume Black's identity. At the time, Durst was avoiding New York investigators who wanted to question him in the disappearance of his first wife, Kathleen A. Durst, 21 years ago.

Defense lawyers argued that Durst had been drinking at the time of Black's killing and either shot his neighbor accidentally or in self-defense after he found Black in his apartment and they struggled over a gun.

Durst's lawyers said his dismemberment and disposal of the body were prompted by an alcohol-induced panic.

The brother of Kathleen Durst, James McCormack, said he was shocked by the verdict.

"How can 12 people who heard and saw the evidence agree that he was not guilty?" McCormack asked in a telephone interview from New Jersey.

McCormack said he and his family would continue to cooperate with the authorities investigating the disappearance of his sister.

Two Durst friends, Stewart and Emily Altman, who attended some of the trial proceedings, were relieved by the verdict.

"We're very happy for Bob," Stewart Altman said from Long Island, N.Y. "The jury did the right thing."

Emily Altman said, "There is no evidence that Bob did anything wrong."

During the six-week trial, Texas prosecutors and Durst's lawyers, some of the most highly paid and powerful in the state, painted a picture of the two men as an odd couple who lived on the fringes of Galveston in a Victorian boarding house.

Durst told jurors that he went to Galveston disguised as a mute woman in November 2000, donning a wig and a dress, to escape news media attention in New York after the investigation into his first wife's disappearance in 1982 was reopened.

He said he became friends with Black after dropping the masquerade, but the friendship had soured because of Black's aggressive behavior.

Durst's lawyers sought to portray Black as cantankerous and potentially violent. At one point in the trial, the defense put a former social worker on the stand who testified that Black once told her that he had killed an American soldier in Japan because the soldier had killed Black's wife.

There also was testimony that Black had been expelled from a Galveston public library because he was making threats and that he had made threats against a utility worker.

Durst testified that on Sept. 28, 2001, Black had broken into his apartment, found his pistol and pointed it at him with an angry look in his eye. He said they struggled, but he did not remember most of what happened.

Rejecting the prosecution's contention's that he had killed Black deliberately, Durst said on the stand: "I did not kill my best friend. I did dismember him."

Durst said that after he shot Black, he panicked and decided to cut up the body, dispose of it and then leave Galveston. He said he did not think anyone would believe that the shooting was not premeditated.

Garbage bags containing most of Black's body parts were found in shallow water two days after the shooting. The head has never been recovered.

One of Durst's lawyers, Dick DeGuerin, offered jurors a sympathetic portrayal of his client, saying that Durst had struggled with a mild form of autism and severe addiction all his life, factors that he said had contributed to his panicked decision to get rid of the body.

"You don't need psychiatrists to explain to you what panic is," DeGuerin said.

The prosecutor, Joel Bennett, scoffed at that notion.

"You can't cut somebody up - another human - and bag him up and dump him in the bay when you act in self-defense," he said.

The Durst family runs The Durst Organization, a privately held billion-dollar New York company that in the 1960s became a major landowner in Times Square.

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