LOS ANGELES -- A Los Angeles judge made a sales pitch of sorts Wednesday to a panel of would-be jurors facing the prospect of serving five months in the murder trial of Robert Durst: this will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Where some judges appeal to a sense of public duty and explain how the jury system is a bedrock of democracy, Judge Mark Windham told potential jurors that they would never have the chance to sit in judgment of a more interesting legal proceeding.
“This is a fascinating case. If you’re going to have one trial where you’re going to be a juror, this is the trial” Windham said. “You’re never going to have an experience like this.”
He may be right. The life of the eccentric heir to a New York commercial real estate fortune has been the subject of a feature film starring Ryan Gosling as Durst, a six-part documentary and countless news stories over four decades.
Durst, 76, is on trial in the killing of his best friend, Susan Berman. Prosecutors said she was one of two people Durst killed to cover up the slaying of his first wife, Kathleen, who vanished from New York in 1982.
Durst has pleaded not guilty to a single count of murder. His lawyer said he didn't kill Berman and doesn't know who did.
Durst has never been charged in his wife's presumed killing and was acquitted of killing and dismembering Morris Black in Texas, claiming he shot Black in self-defense.
He hardly looks the part of a man capable of knocking off three people. The wiry, frail, diminutive man sat hunched over as his lawyer introduced him to about five dozen prospective jurors in Los Angeles Superior Court.
“Can you stand up Bob?” defense lawyer Dick DeGuerin said as he and co-counsel David Chesnoff grabbed Durst under the arms and helped him to his feet from a wheelchair. "This is my client, Bob Durst.”
Windham played the part of a personal and cheery emcee, bantering with jurors about books and movies while explaining the law and pressing them for more details on answers they previously provided on a 25-page questionnaire.
There are 170 prospective jurors remaining from a pool of 414 who filled out the questionnaire earlier in the year. The first 57 were brought to court Wednesday for the first day of questioning by the judge. Twelve jurors and 12 alternates will be chosen in a process expected to last about two weeks.
Durst, dressed in khakis, white shirt, a plaid tweed blazer and bright white ankle-high sneakers, and wearing glasses and hearing aids followed along during the tedious process with the help of a screen in front of him that provided a real-time transcript of the proceedings.
Windham gushed with the first juror who was reading the Poldark books, noting that he and his wife were big fans of the PBS show based on the series.
Speaking of an evil character in the show, Windham said, “When you see him interviewed, he seems like a nice guy. ... It’s hard to imagine him as a villain.”
He could have been talking about Durst, who comes across as a mild-mannered, if cranky, eccentric during the 20 hours of interviews he did with the makers of “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst."
The juror, a singer-songwriter, said it was highly inconvenient to serve five months and would prevent her from writing songs.
“You could write an album” based on the case, Windham said. She said she would not write a book.
“Not your genre, a true crime musical,” Windham quipped.
Windham spent most of his time questioning a computer systems analyst on remarks she made on the questionnaire about defense lawyers being smug and arrogant.
Windham, who previously said the lawyers in the case were the best he’d ever encountered, assured her that the defense team was very good and straightforward and not at all arrogant.
The woman also said that from what she knew of the case, she thought Durst sounded guilty and had committed other crimes.
She had noted that she wanted to do her own research on him. Such sleuthing for jurors during trial is strictly prohibited, the judge said and he added there was absolutely no need for that.
“You’re going to hear so much,” Windham said. “You’re hearing it here, live, from the actual witnesses testifying. ... You’ll hear the best version, you’ll hear right here.”
Like the other jurors interviewed early in the process, she said she could be fair and remained on the panel for the time being.