This podcast is a recorded reading of a Crime Story article published last year during the pre-trial hearings in the California murder case of the People vs. Robert Durst.
From the looks of it, Robert Durst’s legal team has expanded a bit since the first hearing that Crime Story reported on here. It’s 9:45 am, 15 minutes before the hearing is scheduled to begin, and the bloat on the defense’s side of the courtroom concerns Robin Armstrong, the clerk. With the calmness and firmness of a middle-school teacher, she requests that some attorneys sit in the gallery. They oblige, relegated to the gallery’s front row, their knees bumping up against the partition.
Durst’s jury trial is scheduled for September, which is quite a few months away. But he’s been called to Department 81 of the Airport Courthouse this morning in mid-May for a pretrial conference. A month prior, the defense filed a motion to request an evidentiary hearing in an effort to dispute an arrest warrant and suppress what they believe to be illegally obtained evidence.
At 10:00 am, Robert Durst is nowhere to be seen. “Your team grew!” Deputy District Attorney John Lewin vocalizes the obvious as he scans the other side of the room. He’s introduced to Tommy Mingledorff, a lawyer sitting at the front of the gallery. Dick DeGuerin, Durst’s primary lawyer, jokes that he brought the young attorney from Texas to “chop wood and carry water.” He gets some laughs because Mingledorff is, in fact, holding a water bottle. There’s also a new IT guy, hired out of Los Angeles. “Economical,” Lewin says approvingly. They join the other returning lawyers on the defense team: Donald Re, Chip Lewis, Catherine Baen, and David Chesnoff.
For those keeping track, that’s six lawyers for one man with an estimated net worth of over $100 million who’s been accused of killing three people.
The better part of an hour passes. I begin to wonder if I’m in the right place, that maybe all of Durst’s lawyers are inexplicably gathered here for a different client, another high-profile case. They certainly don’t seem concerned by their client’s significant tardiness to what should be one of the most important moments of his life. Court Reporter Rona Matsuzaki swivels in her chair, the back of which reads “COURT REPOR.” Ever the oversharer, Lewin turns around to face the gallery and starts a discussion on college admissions with members of his team. He laments how difficult it is to get into good schools that were once seen as accessible, like USC. He asks his younger colleagues what their SAT and ACT scores were before acknowledging that his own weren’t great.
At 10:45 am, the defense team makes it known that Durst is getting dressed, which supposedly explains the delay. When he finally shuffles in a few minutes later, he’s wearing bifocals, a hearing aid in his right ear, an ill-fitting blue plaid jacket, a worn-out dress shirt, and slacks. Nearly fifty minutes to slip into this stunner of an outfit.
Durst asks, somewhat desperately, “Is Stephanie here?” A woman in her 40s with long, dirty blonde hair rushes forward from the back of the gallery. She gives Durst an awkward hug as he tells her to bring everything tomorrow, “the stuff I can’t get in jail.” A couple months ago, at a different pre-trial hearing, Durst was seen berating Stephanie for bringing him a shirt that he hated.
Durst takes his place at the defense’s table. He sits stoically with his arms outstretched, clasped hands resting on the table. His fingernails need a trim. He pivots his head slowly, like an owl, surveying the room and the small crowd that’s there to see him.
Judge Mark Windham walks in and begins the hearing. It’s 10:57 am.
Windham lays out the plan for the day, explaining that the defense’s motions relate to the validity of the arrest warrant on the grounds of the Fourth and, possibly Fifth and Sixth Amendments. He clarifies that the burden is on the defense to challenge the arrest warrant, and his tentative ruling is that they have not adequately done so. But, he’s willing to hear from both sides. That’s why we’re here.
And then we’re off. DeGuerin and Lewin deliver their teams’ respective opening statements. The prosecution calls two witnesses to the stand — William Williams, the FBI agent who arrested Durst, and Michael Whelan, the LA-based detective who wrote the arrest warrant in question — and they’re questioned by Deputy District Attorney Eugene Miyata, one of Lewin’s colleagues.
Lewin may not believe himself to be the strongest test-taker, but his aptitude for verbally jousting with the defense is strong. We witnessed it at Durst’s last hearing, when he told Durst’s lawyers he was “surprised you all came out for this.” We saw it an hour earlier, when he commented on the growing size of the team. And we’re seeing it now, as Lewin periodically objects to the defense, forcing the lawyers to do a careful dance around and on behalf of their rich and notorious client.
Through it all, Durst sits obediently in his seat, more like a familiar or a friendly ghost than a defendant in one of the city’s most high-profile cases in recent history. This man — the man who summoned a team of six lawyers and one IT guy, the man who made them wait an hour while he put on a shirt, the man whose team is arguing that he was the victim of an unlawful investigation — is now completely silent and immobile.
But late in the afternoon, when exhibits are passed around, Durst takes great interest in them. These are photographs of the evidence in question: a .38 caliber handgun, a bag of marijuana, cash, a UPS tracking number, a fake ID, a latex mask, and the box for the handgun. The defense argues that the evidence discovered through Williams’s search, which Lewin concedes was warrantless, comprised the motivation for the eventual warrant. The prosecution argues that the warrant had been written before the search, but required a judge’s signature in order to be served.
As the photos make their way to Durst, he holds each one with two hands, regarding it individually before slowly moving it to the back of the pile. He occasionally taps a photo on the table to straighten it out. The photo of the latex mask holds his attention. He turns it toward DeGuerin and says something to him while poking the image. DeGuerin has no noticeable response. Durst resumes flipping through the photos, cycling through them, stopping each time to marvel at the photo of the mask.