- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 11, 2003

GALVESTON, Texas (AP) — Eccentric New York millionaire Robert Durst, who said he accidentally killed a hot-tempered neighbor in self-defense and then dismembered the body in a panic, was found not guilty yesterday of murder.

Jurors deliberated over five days, following nearly six weeks of testimony, before deciding that the real estate heir did not murder 71-year-old Morris Black, who lived across the hall from him in a low-rent apartment building.

Mr. Durst, 60, who is under suspicion in two other killings and who posed for a time as a mute woman, testified in his own defense for nearly four days. He insisted that Mr. Black was shot accidentally during a struggle over a gun, and said he used two saws and an ax to cut up the body. The victim’s head has never been found.

Mr. Durst appeared stunned when he heard the verdict from state District Judge Susan Criss, standing with his mouth slightly open and his eyes filling with tears. He hugged his attorneys afterward, saying, “Thank you so much.”

After the killing in late September 2001, Mr. Durst was a fugitive for six weeks until he was caught in Pennsylvania when he tried to shoplift a $5 sandwich even though he had $500 in his pocket.

At the agreement of defense attorneys and prosecutors, jurors considered only a murder charge, not lesser charges in addition such as manslaughter.

If he had been convicted, Mr. Durst could have been sentenced to up to 99 years in prison and fined up to $10,000.

He still faces a bail-jumping count for fleeing after his murder charge, and that could carry a sentence of two to 10 years if he is convicted.

Prosecutor Kurt Sistrunk said he was dismayed and disappointed with the jury’s decision, but retained his confidence in the jury system.

Motive was not something they had to prove, prosecutors said, arguing that all of Mr. Durst’s actions were unexplainable and that Mr. Durst was a habitual liar who couldn’t be trusted.

Prosecutors called Mr. Durst a calculating, cold-blooded killer who shot Mr. Black to steal his identity. They said all his actions afterward, including cutting up the body and twice fleeing Galveston, were part of an elaborate plan to hide his guilt.

But defense attorneys contended Mr. Black was shot accidentally while the two men struggled for a gun after Mr. Durst found his neighbor illegally in his apartment. The defense said prosecutors failed to show jurors any motive for the killing or disprove self-defense.

“Whatever [Mr. Durst] did after Morris Black was dead cannot change how Morris Black died,” defense attorney Dick DeGuerin said in his closing statement. “You can’t convict Bob Durst simply because of that.”

Mr. Durst moved to Galveston disguised as a woman to escape scrutiny in New York after an investigation was reopened into the 1982 disappearance of his first wife, Kathleen. He was also wanted for questioning in the 2000 shooting death of a friend, writer Susan Berman, who was set to be questioned about his missing wife.

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