LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Witnesses expected to testify in the Los Angeles murder trial of real estate scion Robert Durst are concerned for their safety, a prosecutor told a judge on Wednesday, citing the heir’s vast wealth and the deaths of people close to him.
Durst, 73, whose ties to several slayings were chronicled last year in the HBO documentary “The Jinx,” is charged with fatally shooting writer and longtime confidante Susan Berman in December 2000.
Prosecutors say he killed her because of what she knew about the death of Durst’s wife in New York two decades earlier.
Durst, who appeared on Wednesday in Los Angeles County Superior Court in a wheelchair wearing a blue shirt and glasses with his hair cropped short, pleaded not guilty last month to first-degree murder in the Berman case.
Deputy District Attorney John Lewin asked Judge Mark Windham to schedule a conditional hearing for February to record witness testimony, ahead of trial, saying witnesses “understandably are concerned about their safety.”
He said witnesses are concerned because Durst is accused of killing Berman over what she knew about his wife’s disappearance. They are also worried about the killing and dismemberment of a Texas neighbor of Durst, whom Lewin called “a witness.” Durst was acquitted of murder in that case.
Lewin told the court the real estate heir has some $100 million in assets.
The prosecutor said among those he hopes to testify is an 85-year-old doctor and another unnamed witness who Lewin said could “disappear, die, be murdered.”
An attorney for Durst, David Chesnoff, rejected the argument that Durst, wheelchair-bound and incarcerated, poses any threat to witnesses, calling the remarks “hyperbole.”
Windham did not rule on the proposed condition examination hearing to speed up testimony.
He did, however, grant prosecutors’ request that an independent expert be appointed to examine crates of Durst-related documents confiscated by investigators and determine which papers should be excluded as material protected under attorney-client privilege.
Windham also said he would hold a hearing on the question of whether Durst waived his right to attorney-client privilege over materials seized from Durst’s friend in New York State.
Berman, 55, was found dead in her Los Angeles home, reportedly shot execution style, not long after police in New York reopened their investigation into the 1982 disappearance and presumed killing of Durst’s wife, Kathleen.
Durst was questioned but never charged in that probe.
After the hearing, defense attorney Dick DeGuerin told reporters that “Bob Durst didn’t kill Susan Berman, doesn’t know who did, and we are ready to get down the road for a trial.”
Durst was formally charged with the Berman murder a day after HBO aired the final episode of “The Jinx,” in which Durst was recorded muttering to himself off-camera: “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.”
Durst told authorities after his arrest that he smoked marijuana daily and was high on methamphetamine during his appearance on “The Jinx,” according to court records.
(The story changes day to Wednesday from Tuesday in the first paragraph)
Writing by Eric M. Johnson; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Steve Orlofsky