When real-estate heir Robert Durst went on trial in 2003 for the death of his neighbor in Galveston, Texas, 500 people were given jury notifications. The 12 who eventually sat on the jury made a choice that changed their lives forever: they acquitted him of murder in a decision that shocked the nation.
The Jury Speaks, a new TV special on Oxygen, dedicated its final episode to this trial, which received attention for a second time following the blockbuster documentary The Jinx. Several jurors in the case, along with an alternate juror, and the judge, reveal what it was really like to take part in such a high-profile case.
In 2001, Durst was arrested after killing and dismembering his neighbor, Morris Black, and throwing his body parts into Galveston Bay. Police connected the case to Durst after finding his junk mail, complete with address, along with the body parts. At the time, Durst was posing as a mute woman named Dorothy Ciner, taking the name from a former classmate of his. He had moved to Galveston after officials started looking into the 1982 disappearance of his first wife, Kathleen.
“Robert Durst is, I think, one of
Though outsiders were shocked at Durst’s acquittal, those involved in the case say the jury just wasn’t given enough to convict. Because the charge was first-degree murder, prosecutors had to prove the killing was premeditated, but since they never had a motive, they argued Black was shot execution-style, in the back of his head. But Black's head itself was never found. The defense argued that Black took Durst’s gun from his oven and threatened him with it, and as they struggled, the gun went off. Durst apparently felt the police wouldn’t believe him because of the story of his first wife.
According to the defense, after the killing, Durst started drinking and smoking marijuana and decided to chop up and dispose of the body while in a drug-induced haze.
“I think there’s a lot of people that believe that if something happens, they will not be believed by the police, even if it’s an accident,” juror Robbie Nelson said. “So I felt that [was] a possibility.”
The home where Robert Durst lived in Galveston, Texas.
Prosecutors showed jurors graphic photos of Black’s dismembered body, plus receipts from a hardware store where Durst bought a saw, drop cloths, and trash bags. But the defense told the jury that they should only consider what happened the moment the gun went off because Durst wasn’t on trial for cutting up the body.
Some jurors took that as official guidance, even though the judge is adamant she never told them that.
Many people featured in The Jury Speaks put blame on the prosecutors, claiming they had many missed opportunities to get Durst convicted. Some jurors pointed out the prosecution came across as rigid and uptight, while the defense attorneys were more casual, calling Durst their "buddy" who got into trouble.
The defense also successfully painted Morris Black as unruly and aggressive, while Durst was labeled an unassuming stoner. The prosecution also apparently missed out on key moments to grill the defendant. “The most shocking thing of all was that neither prosecutor asked him the most obvious question, ‘What did you do with the head?’” judge Susan Criss said.
“At the beginning, it was 100 percent, there’s no way in the world Durst is not gonna be convicted,” biographer Matt Birkbeck said. “By the time the trial was over, it was like 50/50.”
As the jury convened, three people thought Durst was guilty, five thought he was not guilty, and four did not know. The jurors debated the evidence they had seen, and several people believed the prosecution did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt Durst didn’t kill Morris in self-defense.
“They didn’t know if he was shot in the back of the head, or if they struggled,” juror Deborah Warren said. “But we do know that Morris Black was crazy because that was proven to us.” But other jurors thought a man who could chop up a body had to have been a murderer.
One juror, Chris Lovell, apparently pushed hard in Durst’s defense, repeating the defense’s claim that they should only consider the moment of the killing, not chopping up the body. The jury ended up agreeing to acquit Durst after 26 hours of deliberations. “It was a lot of crying, and it was a lot of praying, and it was a lot of ‘I don’t know,’” Warren said. “It’s hell to be a juror. I found that out the hard way.”
After they delivered the verdict, the jurors faced
After that, juror Chris Lovell started actively appearing in the media to speak out in support of Durst, and even developed a personal relationship with the defendant, even visiting him in jail.
“I have been a criminal lawyer, prosecutor, and judge for almost 30 years,” judge Susan Criss said. “I have never seen the level of involvement or kind of involvement that Chris Lovell and Robert Durst had after the trial.”
In 2004, the New York Daily News learned Lovell was helping Durst find a luxury home in League City, Texas, where Lovell lived with his wife. "I wanted to talk to Robert Durst for myself to ask him a few questions of my own out of the courtroom," he told the newspaper in a statement. "After visiting and talking with him in jail, I am now fully convinced he is innocent of murder and I thank God I had no part in sending an innocent man to prison.”
According to the documentary, Lovell now refuses to speak to the media. In reporting this story, we could not locate him for comment.
All this happened years before the documentary that brought Durst back into the spotlight: The Jinx. In that HBO film, Durst is caught on his microphone saying, "You're caught...What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course." He was arrested less than 24 hours later and charged with the 2000 murder of his friend, Susan Berman. He has pleaded not guilty. When he said, ‘I killed them all,’ I almost fell off my couch,” biographer Matt Birkbeck said.
Several jurors sat down for the special and talked about the case. Many of them said that if they had to revote today, they would change their vote, meaning that the jury might not have acquitted Robert Durst.
“I’ve been very disillusioned in the process," juror Joanne Gongora said. “He hasn’t been convicted of anything, but he’s getting ready to go on trial in Los Angeles for Susan Berman, and hopefully justice will be done.” Durst's defense attorney, Dick DeGuerin, did not respond to a request for comment.
Robert Durst talks to his defense attorney, Dick Deguerin, on November 6, 2016, during his arraignment in the Susan Berman case.
Overall, The Jury Speaks aims to put a different light on high-profile trials, because what the public sees is not what jurors see. “I think what I learned about this case, and all cases, is you don’t know what really happened in the court. We always judge the jury when all is said and done,” Nancy Glass says. “I think people should know that nothing is ever black and white. There’s always gray, there’s always something that’s questionable."
This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.