Even through the closed door of the witness interview room, the voices are loud, ratcheting up the tension in the courtroom. An unseen female insists: “I brought the white shirt… and the blue jacket!” The reply is lost as the court reporter raps on the door, leans in, and warns the people in the room that they can be heard. There’s a long beat, and then a middle-aged, blonde woman emerges from the room, looking flustered. She takes a seat immediately behind the defense team. “He cut his hair again,” she announces, perturbed.
The “he” in question is accused murderer Robert Durst, and the first glimpse of him is haunting. The bailiff unlocks the door leading to the in-custody holding area and suddenly there, gripping the doorframe, is a disembodied hand. Pale, gnarled, palsied.
Robert Durst pulls himself into view. He is exceptionally frail, wearing clothes that look like they were purchased before a sudden weight loss: loosely fitting tan pants with no belt, a crisp white shirt with a collar too large for his wattled neck, a blue sports jacket. He wears oversized aviator frame eyeglasses and his white hair is buzzcut close to his scalp — so close that the jagged scar that zigzags across the right side of his skull can be clearly seen (evidence of recent surgery to insert a shunt to mitigate Durst’s diagnosed hydrocephalus). He wears an assistive listening device in either ear. A weary-looking 76, Durst moves with the tentativeness of the aged and the very ill. He reaches out to touch each surface as he approaches it for balance and reassurance, like a man lurching along the tossing deck of a ship at sea. Aided by one of his attorneys, he tumbles into the defendant’s chair.
We are gathered in Department 81 at the glass-and-marble Airport Courthouse, tucked in an overlooked corner of the city just southwest of the 105/405 interchange. It’s a misty March morning — outside the eighth floor windows, the marine layer is slowly shredding itself on the construction cranes for the new Rams stadium, visible in the middle distance.
The troubled scion of a family-run, multimillion dollar real estate empire, Durst is in court with his defense team to discuss scheduling for his long-awaited murder trial. In December 2000, Susan Berman, Durst’s longtime friend and confidante, was found shot to death, execution-style, in her Benedict Canyon cottage. Long a suspect in Berman’s death (as well as in the 1982 disappearance of his former wife, Kathie), Durst directly implicated himself when he confided to a friend during a dinner conversation about Berman one night: “I had to. It was her or me. I had no choice.” That friend, Nick Chavin, reported Durst’s admission to Los Angeles District Attorney John Lewin; Durst was arrested on first-degree murder charges in New Orleans in March 2015 and transferred in the autumn of 2016 to Los Angeles, where he has languished in county lock-up ever since.
Durst’s appearance in court this day is further complicated by another damning incident: his controversial cooperation in the making of a documentary about his life, HBO’s The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst. In the course of filming, documentarians Andrew Jarecki, Marc Smerling, and Zac Stuart-Pontier discovered that the handwriting on an envelope addressed by Durst was similar to that on an anonymous note sent to the LAPD regarding the Berman murder. Was Durst responsible for the note as well? Presented on-camera with this suggestive piece of evidence, Durst balked. Heading for the bathroom, he erupted into an off-screen stream-of-consciousness rant, unaware that his anxious monologue was being captured by a live microphone. (Jarecki, Smerling, and Stuart-Pointer included an edited, re-ordered version of this rant in the documentary’s final episode, eliciting howls of protest about violations of journalistic ethics). The Jinx’s potentially incriminating revelations about Durst attracted the attention of Los Angeles investigators and played a significant role in his 2015 New Orleans arrest and subsequent extradition for Berman’s murder.
Representing the People is Deputy District Attorney John Lewin himself, the relentless Javert to Durst’s Jean Valjean. Lewin sports a law enforcement-appropriate fixed jaw and crew cut. Assisting him is Habib Balian — older, bespectacled, his ID hanging from a USC Trojan lanyard. Lewin sets a tone of humorlessness — this in contrast to Durst’s defense team, which crowds into the courtroom in a blur of lilac sports jackets, gelled hair, and Stetson hats. Dick DeGuerin (name partner at Houston’s DeGuerin, Dickson, Hennessy & Ward) is assisted by local counsel Donald M. Re, as well as Houston-based Chip B. Lewis and David Z. Chesnoff from Las Vegas. The dress code tilts Southwestern: the Stetsons are removed and then left, crowns down, on the bailiff’s desk. There’s something both genteel and vaguely threatening about the pile of Stetsons. Is it Old West etiquette or a bit of Texas showboating?
Lewin comments on the defense team’s turnout. “I’m surprised you all came out for this,” he says. “It’s to see Bob,” he’s told. The defense team projects bravado and macho ease with handshakes and sports small talk (about respective March Madness brackets) before the hearing commences. Let there be no mistake, however: there is bad blood here. The posturing on display is reminiscent of alley cats who, face to face and ready to fight, often will avert their gazes and groom themselves, as if conflict is the very last thing they have planned. These legal teams are operating at the calm but poised-to-explode end of the adversarial spectrum.
Judge Mark E. Windham summons counsel to his chambers for an extended discussion. In their absence, Durst fidgets, his shirt collar riding up his neck. The legal teams return and, once seated, Windham inquires about Durst’s hearing aid. “So Mr. Durst has an assisted listening device that is working this morning?”
DeGuerin assures him that Durst’s hearing aids are in working order, and Durst pipes up. “It’s working, your Honor.” His voice is high and shaky.
Windham and the legal teams repeat that January 13, 2020 must be the “absolute last day” of the forthcoming trial, and the proceedings are wrapped up with Lewin repeating that the agreed-upon “working plan” is for an alternating five days/four days weekly schedule.
DeGuerin has the last word, however. “Mr. Durst has expressed his preference to do four days each week because of the transportation problems and how they get him up at 4:00 every morning and so forth… And I’d like to weigh in on my preference also that it’s four days a week.”
Windham nods. “Thank you, Mr. DeGuerin.”
Durst is helped to his feet and the bailiff escorts him out the reinforced metal door leading to the in-custody holding area. Handshakes all around, the Stetsons are lifted from the bailiff’s desk, and the legal teams depart.
Immediately preceding the Durst hearing, the felony sentencing hearing for Armon Nelson is decidedly less testosterone-rich. Deputy Alternate Public Defender Aronda Hurst, somewhere in her 50s, organizes her papers as she waits for the in-custody Nelson to be brought in. In the gallery behind her, Nelson’s family sits close together. As a family wearing Sunday church clothes, they seem transported from another era, a Norman Rockwell portrait of grief and concern.
Deputy District Attorney Eva Stodel takes a deep breath and leans over to Hurst. She says that she’s certain that Nelson has a bright future in front of him, post-incarceration. Hurst is terse but seemingly appreciative. The People’s sympathy might not salve any wounds, but it at least acknowledges the scope of the tragedy that is being played out here.
The bailiff escorts Armon Nelson in — black-frame eyeglasses, hair styled in cornrows and rubber bands, white plastic rosary beads around his neck. Nelson smiles and nods to his family, waves his cuffed hands. One of the women in the group begins to weep. Nelson pleaded “no contest” to a carjacking charge in January 2019. He is here to learn how long he will have to serve in state prison.
In 2017, Nelson was with a group of three other men when they stole a car from a driver while one of the men wielded a handgun. Nelson was on probation at the time (for his first and only other offense), and the combination of an aggravated felony (carjacking while in possession of a firearm) with his probation violation earned Nelson a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years. By state law he must serve at least 80 percent of that. To date, Nelson has served 737 days “actual” — credited with an additional 110 days “good time” and “work time,” he had a total custody credit of 847 days. That’s against the 5475 days of his full sentence. Once he’s seated, Hurst asks that he be allowed to have one hand free. The court accedes and the bailiff unshackles one of Nelson’s hands.
Judge Windham is quick if somewhat pained in his determination: “As to Count 1… the defendant is to be imprisoned in state prison a total aggregate term of 15 years.” The worst has been expressed and heard. Nelson’s battle would now have to be fought uphill.
With impressive patience, Hurst recounts Nelson’s case history for Windham: “Initially,” she notes, “The People wanted two strikes and 20 some odd years.” After numerous meetings with the DA’s office, the parties had come to what she called “an equitable resolution in this matter” — a reference to her client’s plea to the carjacking count.
Hurst then shares with the Court her client’s significant attempts to make productive use of his time in custody: Nelson has completed several “Five Keys” study programs and has certificates to that effect. (Started in 2003, Five Keys is a non-profit that operates charter schools and educational programs for California transitional-aged youth and adults, including 20 inside county jails.)
Presented with the certificates, Windham is visibly moved. “[It is] impressive that he started applying himself. He’s going to make something of himself. When he is released — and he will be released — he’s got some of the fundamentals here to lead an honest and productive life. I’ll make sure this goes in the packet.” Then, in a rare bit of bully pulpit-ing, Windham intimates frustration with current parole protocols. “You never know how legislation might change the parole rules,” he muses. “There’s increasing recognition that people in their youth will act antisocially and yet in their maturity become productive members of society.” Windham then switches back to a harsher, less-enlightened present tense: “I don’t see that there’s anything that would change this 15-year sentence. But we can look forward to that.”
Some unseen weight seems to shift in the courtroom — Hurst now has to make sure that her client’s carceral requirements will be met. Nelson requests Fire Camp, a program run by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation that takes non-violent, minimal custody inmates and transfers them to camps throughout the state where they are trained as firefighters. Windham “gladly recommend[s]” it.
The tragedy of Armon Nelson, sentenced to serve the approximate length of his short life all over again but now behind bars, is drawing to a close. Stodel restates her sympathy and support for Nelson, this time for the record. “I’ll reiterate that Ms. Hurst and I had many, many conversations about this case. And through those and learning about Mr. Nelson’s background and learning about who he was before this crime spree occurred, we … on behalf of the people, we’re really hopeful that Mr. Nelson comes out of his experience a changed person and really moves forward to live a productive life because I think he has it in him. So I wish him luck.”
Just before the hearing ends, Hurst makes one last request on behalf of Nelson. She points out that Nelson has braces on his teeth — sharing that he nevertheless has not been seen by an orthodontist in two years. He’s been forced, Hurst explains, to “physically remove the wires himself.” Hurst asks that Windham order the State to send Nelson to an orthodontist for removal of the braces. Windham quickly approves Hurst’s request.
It is then incumbent upon Windham to add the final punctuation. “Then the defendant,” he intones, “is committed to the custody of the Sheriff for delivery to the Department of Corrections forthwith.” Nelson stands. As his free hand is cuffed to his manacled one, he turns and makes one last awkward wave to his bereaved family. And with that, Nelson is escorted out of the courtroom.