“If you’re in Las Vegas and in trouble, call David Chesnoff.” Peter Lattman, Wall Street Journal Law Blog – May 8, 2007

This is the seventh in a series of articles about the hearings before the murder trial of Robert Durst. You may click on the hyperlinked titles to read Two Hearings: Robert Durst and Armon NelsonWhile Robert Durst Flips Through PhotosRobert Durst Fades Away, Robert Durst and the Inequity of Judicial Time, Robert Durst’s Warrior in Court and Robert Durst Stares into the Camera.

As Peter Lattman points out in the quote above, David Chesnoff is Nevada’s go to Criminal Defense attorney. He has represented musicians, magicians, actors, athletes, poker players, business executives and a biker gang, when they have run afoul of the law, usually with great effectiveness.

However his legendary impact in Vegas appears to have, as the saying goes, stayed in Vegas, at least as it relates to his representation of Robert Durst in his Los Angeles trial for the murder of Susan Berman. 

As we have previously noted, Durst’s defense team has faced challenge upon challenge and defeat upon defeat in their motions to exclude and/or compel evidence in this case. 

Durst attorney Chip Lewis has approached these setbacks with a measure of stoic fatalism. Chesnoff, by contrast, has expressed exasperation, irritation and petulant despair as the losses have mounted.

As noted in Sean Smith‘s Robert Durst Stares into the Camera, Chip Lewis leaves the courtroom after losing motions related to the inclusion and exclusion of evidence from the documentary production company that made the Durst-focused series The Jinx.

After Lewis’s departure, Chesnoff takes up the arguments to try to limit the kind of testimony that an expert chosen by the prosecution may give regarding handwriting on a note and envelope that was sent to the police in Beverly Hills making them aware that there was a “cadaver“ in Susan Berman’s home. As the documentary series The Jinx showed, even Robert Durst himself agreed on camera that the handwriting on that note looked strikingly similar to Durst’s handwriting, and included a misspelling of the word Beverly, adding an “e” before the “y,” that was identical to a misspelling on an envelope that Durst had sent to Berman at an earlier date.

Chesnoff argues that the state’s handwriting expert should only be able to offer his opinions about similarities in specific details of the handwriting, that he should not be allowed to offer an opinion about whether the handwriting is Robert Durst’s, and that the jury should be advised that this expert’s testimony is mere subjective opinion and not scientific. Chesnoff also indicates that he intends to call his own expert witness whose opinion should be given equal evidentiary weight to the testimony of the state’s expert.

In rebuttal, Deputy District Attorney John Lewin requests that the states handwriting expert be allowed to explain in detail his process and methodology, and clarifies for the judge that he absolutely wants the defense’s expert to testify. “I’ll gut him like a fish,” Lewin says to an audible exclamation from Judge Mark Windham, and continues, “I want a real clear warning to counsel that if you are going to call someone who is going to attack the whole field and who is not a handwriting expert himself, then this is the cross you are going to get.”

Chesnoff crankily interjects, “I will let him know, your honor.”

Chesnoff also argues that, because early in the investigation of Berman‘s death, a different handwriting expert hired by the prosecutor offered the opinion that the “cadaver note” was written by someone else, and that the defense should be able to introduce that fact as evidence of three things: 1) the weakness of the “cadaver note” as a piece of evidence; 2) a team of investigators who had a habit of shaping the evidence to fit their theory of who committed the crime; and 3) there is at least one other suspect out there.

Lewin, of course, objects, and states that the defense has come nowhere near close to making compelling arguments that the previous handwriting opinion, or for that matter any evidence of possible third-party culpability should be allowed.

Judge Windham again teases Lewin for his loquaciousness but, as in most previous instances, rules in favor of the prosecution as Chesnoff’s shoulders slump in defeat.

Before making that ruling, Judge Windham appears to try to somewhat soften the blow by offering a faint bit of praise to the defense: “I do think the defense’s brief was a good guide,” he says. “It was well organized.”

Chesnoff, sitting next to his client Robert Durst, rocks back-and-forth in his chair. He nods his head. He looks over to his adversary, John Lewin, with a smile at the compliment, and says softly, but audibly, “Imagine that.”

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