LOS ANGELES (CNS) - Prosecutors filed court papers today objecting to the defense's request for a mistrial in the case of New York real estate scion Robert Durst, whose murder trial has been on hold for about 2 1/2 months so far because of the coronavirus pandemic.
In an 11-page motion, Deputy District Attorney John Lewin called the request Durst's “latest effort to restart a trial for tactical and strategic considerations independent of the (COVID-19) pandemic, (that) he rightly perceives is thus far not going in his favor.''
Durst's attorneys contended in their court filing that a lengthy delay caused by the pandemic has “made it impossible'' for the now 77-year-old Durst to get a fair trial.
The defense lawyers wrote that there has been a “prejudicial mid-trial delay'' since mid-March and it is “unrealistic'' given the length of the break to expect jurors to remember the evidence they heard about Susan Berman's December 2000 shooting death at her home in the Benedict Canyon area of Los Angeles.
“Although it is certainly true that this lengthy break in the trial is `unprecedented' in the annals of jurisprudence, so is the COVID-19 pandemic which caused it,'' Lewin wrote in his response, adding that jurors had heard evidence for just two days and that the defense has failed to explain what its plan would be for re-initiating the trial in the future.
The coronavirus pandemic forced court officials to close the county's courthouses to all but time-sensitive, essential matters.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mark Windham is set to rule on the defense's motion for a mistrial at a June 23 hearing at the Airport Courthouse in Los Angeles.
If the defense's motion is denied, jurors are expected to be asked to return to court July 27 -- this time at the Inglewood courthouse a few miles away from the courthouse where they initially began hearing the case.
Moving the trial from the courtroom where it was being heard to a larger one at the Inglewood courthouse will better enable the court to implement social-distancing protocols, according to court spokeswoman Mary Hearn.
Prosecutors in Durst's trial filed court papers last month asking the judge to allow some witnesses to testify through a two-way video conferencing system such as Zoom or Skype to “avoid potential contagion or spread of contagion during air travel'' in light of the global pandemic.
“It is our position that given the advanced age of nearly all of the out-of-state witnesses in the case, the directives from the local and federal authorities that such individuals avoid any air travel unless absolutely necessary, as well as for the health and welfare of the jurors, court staff, attorneys, spectators, etc., that the only prudent step is to allow for the contemporaneous two-way video testimony from these older out-of-state witnesses,'' prosecutors wrote.
In a separate motion filed in late April, prosecutors asked that jurors be allowed to hear the videotaped testimony of the government's star witness, Nathan “Nick'' Chavin, and three other people who live outside ofCalifornia.
In their court papers, prosecutors said the four are all over 65 yearsold and are “at higher risk of severe illness or death due to COVID-19'' and asked the judge to find that they are unavailable to travel to Southern California to appear before the jury in Durst's trial.
In their court filing, Durst's attorneys wrote that “convening a new trial when it is safe to do so'' may result in the prosecution's witnesses being able to travel to Los Angeles to testify in court.
“More specifically, the People's repeated suggestion that the court resume trial via Zoom video conferencing should be rejected as violative of defendant's constitutional rights and utterly impractical,'' the defense attorneys wrote in their motion.
Prosecutors allege that Durst killed Berman after she told him she was going to talk to investigators looking into the still-unsolved 1982 disappearance of his first wife, Kathie.
Durst was acquitted of murder in Texas after testifying that he killed his neighbor, Morris Black, in self-defense in September 2001. Los Angeles County prosecutors alleged that Durst was in Galveston, Texas, while posing as a mute woman after authorities launched a new investigation into what had happened to Kathie Durst.
In his opening statement in Durst's Los Angeles murder trial, the defendant's lead attorney told jurors that Durst panicked after finding Berman's body in her home while coming to visit her for the holidays. Durst wrote an anonymous “cadaver note'' that was subsequently mailed to Beverly Hills police so her body would be found, attorney Dick DeGuerin said, noting that Durst would testify in his own defense during the trial.
Durst was profiled in a six-part HBO television series “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst,'' in which the defendant was later recorded saying “There it is, you're caught'' and “killed them all, of course.''
Durst has been behind bars since March 14, 2015, when he was taken into custody in a New Orleans hotel room hours before the airing of the final episode of the HBO series, which examined Kathie's disappearance and the killings of Berman and Black.
Durst has been long estranged from his real estate-rich family, which is known for ownership of a series of New York City skyscrapers -- including an investment in the World Trade Center. He split with the family when his younger brother was placed in charge of the family business, leading to a drawn-out legal battle.
According to media reports, Durst ultimately reached a settlement under which the family paid him $60 million to $65 million.
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