Several Crime Story Reporters contributed to this story.
It is 11:30 AM on the 27th of February. Twelve people rise together and, in unison, commit themselves for a five-month-long excursion. It will be no vacation. They are being taken away from their jobs, their families, and their lives to spend this spring and part of this summer inside the life and mind of Robert Durst.
Together in Department 81 of the Airport Courthouse, they are sworn in by Judge Mark E. Windham. They have been chosen after a thorough voir dire to serve on the jury in the trial of Durst for the murder of his longtime friend, Susan Berman, a murder trial sparked by the HBO series “The Jinx.” “The Jinx” has been central to the questioning of potential jurors for the past week and, in fact, has been a central focus of the selection process. In the 28 page jury questionnaire completed in January, many potential jurors answered that they had seen the documentary series. That’s not surprising in this day and age, and certainly not in West LA. It’s a fact that the defense has to live with.
Here’s a snapshot of the twelve seated jurors who, despite their varying degrees of exposure to the case, demonstrated to Judge Windham, the Prosecution and the Defense, that they could be completely impartial in evaluating evidence in the coming months. These descriptions are gleaned from courtroom observation and thus are subject to error. Any identifying information that could compromise the jurors’ anonymity has been withheld.
Juror 1: A white, female, geographic information systems engineer in her mid to late 30s, she didn’t know much about the case and was familiar with the Durst name from the news. Asked about the prospect of reviewing evidence accumulated over many years tending to implicate and/or exculpate Durst, she said “it’s a lot to unpack.” She was called in just yesterday, February 26th, after replacing a dismissed juror.
Juror 2: A white, male, lead software engineer in his early 30s, this charismatic and talkative midwesterner got to the point quickly when being questioned by the defense and prosecution. He said he “just doesn’t know enough about the case to be biased.” Juror 2 originally stated that he didn’t think circumstantial evidence could prove someone guilty but, like many, changed his mind after Deputy District Attorney John Lewin explained that circumstantial evidence can be just as reliable as direct evidence. He has been in the box since last week.
Juror 3: A black, middle-aged male, this retired Special Agent for the Office of Inspectors General and the FBI described his work in counter-terrorism as well as investigating people who “stole money from the government.” He has served on a jury in two prior murder trials. The defense complimented his “fabulous hoodie” commemorating the lives of Kobe and Gianna Bryant. Juror 3 felt “discomfort serving as a juror” due to his past experience of “getting the bad guys.” But Lewin clarified that a juror’s job isn’t about getting a “bad guy” but determining whether, in fact, Durst was one in this case. Juror 3 then said he believed he could do that impartially. Juror 3 has many friends in law enforcement and Lewin asked if he could view potential law enforcement witnesses as “humans who can be untruthful sometimes.” He said he could, and would be able to consider their testimony honestly and fairly.
Juror 4: An Asian woman who appears to be in her early 30s, she had not seen “the Jinx” but said she knew a lot about the case based on what colleagues have told her. She believes that Durst “probably” murdered Morris Black despite a Texas jury having ruled that he was innocent of murder in that case. Lewis outlined that the jury in Texas found that Durst killed Morris Black in self-defense, and that self-defense is not murder. She understood the distinction and agreed. Lewin discussed with the jury that they are in no way bound by the jury’s determination in Galveston and that their responsibility is to evaluate the evidence themselves and come to their own conclusion. Juror 4 also expressed concern about Durst’s wealth getting him out of legal situations throughout his life.
Juror 5: An Asian-American male who appears to be in his 30s, he works as a financial analyst and was clear and concise in his answers during voir dire. He said that, in spite of the fact that he has an MBA and a Masters Degree in Math, he does not like to be pigeonholed as a “numbers person.” Juror 5 talked with Lewin about the fact that his mother suffered from domestic abuse throughout his life, but said he would make no assumptions on information regarding Durst’s abuse of his wife, Kathleen. He believes that the “Criminal justice system is biased towards celebrities and the wealthy” but said this opinion would not lead to bias against Durst. Juror 5 lightened the mood of the courtroom with his honesty about the “uncomfortable conditions” he was in while filling out the long questionnaire with the other jurors on a “wobbly” table. He also shared that, unfamiliar with the Durst case, he originally thought it involved Fred Durst, the lead singer of Limp Bizkit, a mistake several younger jurors made.
Juror 6: A soft-spoken Asian-American male in his mid-30s, Juror 6 works in management services at a University. This juror didn’t know anything about the case before reading the juror questionnaire. A relative of Juror 6 was murdered in 2011 but he said that the pain of the murder “doesn’t linger” in his home, despite a close relationship with the victim. Like most of the jurors, Juror 6 expressed concern about the dismemberment of Morris Black and stated that he thought it proved Durst was “capable of murder.” Still, he said he can keep an open mind in reviewing evidence and will be fair and impartial. Lewin responsed during his voir dire that “if the evidence at trial matched their preconceived understanding, they were free to then come to the same conclusions of guilt many of them were starting with.”
Juror 7: An Asian woman who was born and raised in the Philippines with shoulder length brown hair, and who appears to be in her mid-40s. Juror 7 works as a nurse at the VA Hospital, and first entered the box on February 20, making her one of the earliest jurors. She recounted for the court an incident in which a relative was assassinated in her native country. Like many jurors, she originally discounted the validity of circumstantial evidence. However, after an exchange with Lewin she came to understand that circumstantial evidence “is not automatically any less reliable than direct evidence.”
Juror 8: A white, female, bespectacled poet appearing to be in her 60’s, retired from a career at Southern California Gas, and her late husband was a reserve LAPD officer and psychologist. She did not feel her association with LAPD or her understanding of psychology would bias her in any way. Given the choice, she would not serve, but understands that the United States system of justice relies on juries. When asked whether or not Durst’s age and infirmities automatically caused her to believe that he could not have committed the murders involved in the case, Juror 8 revealed that an elderly family member had been convicted of molesting members of her family.
Juror 9: A woman appearing to be in her late 20’s, this juror says she found Durst to be a “charming psychopath” in “The Jinx” and that he “came off as a gentle grandpa-type.” This prompted Lewin to ask if she felt she had a “special affinity” for Durst. She replied “no” with a laugh which was joined by Durst and his defense team. Referring to her “charming psychopath” comment, she added, “I think he’s probably more the second part than the first.”
Juror 10: A middle-aged, retired, white female teacher who lived extensively in Japan, this juror has remained in seat 10 since the beginning of jury selection. She listened intently, and despite a herniated disk that makes sitting uncomfortable, Juror 10 was often seen smiling.
Juror 11: A middle-aged Asian woman, this Clinical Pharmacist has served as a juror before. She was seated in the box toward the end of jury selection and was not asked many questions.
Juror 12: A woman doctor in her 30s who works as a pathologist, she described herself as “patient” and said she “interprets results carefully.” Like some other jurors, she stated on her questionnaire that defendants should “not hide behind the fifth amendment” and said “if you’re being accused of something, wouldn’t you want to say something about it?” After an exchange with Chip Lewis, she revised her opinion on a defendant’s right to remain silent.
During voir dire, each side was allowed 20 challenges. Of those, the prosecution used 4 and the defense used 9. The court can strike as many jurors for cause as it deems necessary.
Though most hardship requests were weeded out long before voir dire, many potential jurors requested dismissal. They handed notes, in a variety of shapes and sizes, to the bailiff or the clerk, who in turn delivered them Judge Windham. These potential jurors met with the Judge and lawyers in the courtroom or chambers, away from the rest of the jury pool, and spoke at some length about their situations. Some explained complicated work obligations, while others conveyed highly personal experiences with murder, abuse, and other trauma. Others, it would seem, thought they could be excused by being as annoying and contrary as possible. Judge Windham listened carefully, questioned thoughtfully, always remaining focused on the law. He was fair, but no pushover.
The note passers – who by and large were well heeled and seen desperately talking on cell phones during breaks – were an agitated bunch. The rest of the pool – and the jurors who were seated today – seemed resigned to whatever the court had in store for them and committed to doing their civic duty. As was said repeatedly by Angelenos of every color, age, size, and background in Department 81, “I will be fair and impartial. I will carry out the duties and instructions of the Judge.”
An additional twelve Alternate Jurors will be selected before the trial begins next week.
Crime Story has previously published nine installments in a series of articles about the hearings leading up to the murder trial of Robert Durst. You may click on the hyperlinked titles to read Two Hearings: Robert Durst and Armon Nelson, While Robert Durst Flips Through Photos, Robert Durst Fades Away, Robert Durst and the Inequity of Judicial Time, Robert Durst’s Warrior in Court, Robert Durst Stares into the Camera, Robert Durst’s Lawyer Gets a Compliment, Robert Durst: You Can’t Unring the Bell and Unanticipated Intimacy and the Trial of Robert Durst. We also published news stories entitled Robert Durst Admits Writing “Cadaver Note” and “Dig Note” and Robert Durst Admits “Killed Them All” Recording is “True and Accurate” and presented a podcast discussion of the case here.