Millionaire drifter Durst not guilty of murder, court finds

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , GALVESTON, TEXAS

Thu, Nov 13, 2003 - Page 6

Robert A. Durst, the millionaire real estate heir from New York who was living like a drifter in Texas, was acquitted on Tuesday of charges that he murdered a 71-year-old neighbor in Galveston two years ago.

Durst, 60, admitted killing Morris Black in September 2001, butchering him, putting his body parts in garbage bags and dumping them into Galveston Bay. But he steadfastly maintained that the death was the result of a struggle and not murder.

When the state jury in Galveston returned the not-guilty verdict in a courtroom scene televised nationwide, Durst looked stunned, his mouth agape, and then he looked upward as if in relief.

He hugged his lawyers and their assistants and then said, "Thank you so much." None of his relatives or friends appeared to be in the courtroom.

Conviction could have brought Durst a prison sentence of 5 to 99 years and a fine of up to US$10,000.

Prosecutors contended that Durst had plotted the murder to assume Black's identity. At the time, Durst was avoiding New York investigators who wanted to question him in connection with the disappearance of his first wife, Kathleen Durst, 21 years ago.

Defense lawyers argued that Durst had been drinking at the time of Black's killing and either shot his neighbor accidentally or in self-defense after he discovered Black in his apartment and they struggled over a gun.

Durst's lawyers said his dismemberment and disposal of the body was prompted by an alcohol-induced panic.

The brother of Kathleen Durst, James McCormack, said that he was shocked by the verdict. "How can 12 people who heard and saw the evidence agree that he was not guilty?" McCormack said. He said he and his family would continue to cooperate with the authorities investigating the disappearance of his sister.

Two friends of Robert Durst, Stewart and Emily Altman, who attended some of the trial proceedings, said they were relieved by the verdict. "We're very happy for Bob," Stewart Altman said. "The jury did the right thing." Emily Altman said, "There is no evidence that Bob did anything wrong."

During the six-week trial, the Texas prosecutors and Durst's lawyers, some of the most highly paid and powerful in the state, painted a picture of the two men as an odd couple who lived on the fringes of Galveston in a Victorian boarding house.

Durst told jurors that he went to Galveston disguised as a mute woman in November 2000, donning a wig and a dress to escape media attention in New York after the investigation into his first wife's 1982 disappearance was reopened.

He said that he became friends with Black after dropping the masquerade, but that the friendship had soured because of Black's aggressive behavior.