Jurors in the trial of Robert Durst for the murder of his friend Susan Berman were startled by two intense outbursts during the testimony of Durst‘s brother Thomas.
Thomas Durst arrived in court appearing frail, walking on a damaged leg and wearing surgical gloves. For most of his testimony, he spoke softly and timidly with little inflection in his voice. He related that he was not there voluntarily but because he had been subpoenaed, and that he was terrified of his brother.
Much of Thomas’ testimony — guided by prosecutor John Lewin — was focused on establishing that his brother, Robert, was very controlling of Robert’s wife Kathie during the time before her disappearance in late January 1982, particularly when it came to money. Thomas testified that Robert, who has a net worth estimated to be over $100 million, gave his wife only food stamps to go shopping. And on one occasion during a trip to a local market, Thomas gave Kathie Durst money to cover feminine hygiene products and other items not covered by the food stamps.
On another occasion, in the weeks just before Kathie’s disappearance, Kathie approached Thomas for financial assistance. Thomas would not write Kathie a check — for fear of Robert discovering that he had given her money — and instead gave her all of the cash he had on hand, “maybe a few hundred dollars,” Thomas recalled.
But in spite of Thomas’ effort to conceal his gift to Kathie, Robert found out. During a trip taken by Thomas from his home in San Francisco to visit his family in New York in April of 1982 — three months after Kathie Durst’s disappearance — Robert confronted Thomas about the discovery before breakfast at Thomas’s hotel.
THOMAS DURST: NOW, AS YOU KNOW, KATHIE IS ALREADY WAS MISSING BY THAT TIME — I USED THE TERM MISSING AND — ROBERT DURST CAME UP TO ME AND THESE ARE THE WORDS HE SAID. HE SAID, ‘I KNOW SHE ASKED YOU FOR MONEY.’ BUT THAT’S NOT THE MEANING THAT HE PUT ON IT. HE SAID IT LIKE THIS.
And as Thomas Durst recounted his brother’s reaction, suddenly, the soft-spoken, retiring, frail man transformed into a raging fountain of venom as he quoted his brothers verbal assault on him:
THOMAS DURST: I KNOW SHE ASKED YOU FOR MONEY!
JUDGE WINDHAM: SO FOR THE RECORD TO CAPTURE, THIS WAS A VERY ANGRY TONE THAT THE WITNESS USED, WHEN HE STATED THOSE WORDS, HE SHOUTED THOSE WORDS IN AN ANGRY TONE.
JOHN LEWIN: MR DURST, WHEN HE SAID THAT, HOW DID YOU TAKE IT?
THOMAS DURST: I FELT LIKE I WAS ABOUT TO DIE.
Jurors were visibly stunned by the sudden explosion of emotion from Thomas Durst. And that was not the only sensory jolt of the afternoon.
As Deputy District Attorney Lewin continued the questioning, Thomas Durst reverted back to his soft spoken tone and further recounted the events that day. When Lewin asked him, “What’s the next thing that happened?” Thomas Durst described how Robert rejoined him and their father, Seymour, after the breakfast and headed together toward the Durst Organization. They walked through an office building on the way, as was Seymour’s habit, and came to a revolving door.
THOMAS DURST: SO SEYMOUR GOES THROUGH THE REVOLVING DOOR FIRST. THEN I GO INTO THE REVOLVING DOOR AND FROM (EMOTION CREEPING INTO HIS VOICE) BEHIND LIKE A SNEAK. HE TAKES HIS FULL STRENGTH — YOU CAN’T THINK OF HIM THIS WAY (INDICATING ROBERT’S CURRENT FRAILTY). HE WAS STRONG IN THOSE DAYS. HE TOOK HIS FULL STRENGTH. HE (RAISING HIS VOICE) SHOVED THE GLASS AND I WENT AROUND AND AROUND AND I FELL OUT. (THOMAS HAS SPUN HIMSELF INTO SUCH A FRENZY, HE SEEMS TO WOBBLE IN HIS SEAT AND TAKES A MOMENT TO RECOVER. NOW, AS IF REMEMBERING THE PAIN AND HUMILIATION) OH MY GOD, I FELL OUT ON THE STREET. I’M ON MY KNEES AND HE’S GUFFAWING. IT’S THE FUNNIEST THING HE’S EVER SEEN HIS ENTIRE LIFE.
THOMAS DURST: AN ELDERLY GENTLEMAN HAD GOTTEN INTO THE REVOLVING DOOR BEFORE ME. I MEAN AFTER ME. AND HE ALSO ENDED UP ON THE FLOOR BUT HE WAS ON THE FLOOR INSIDE THE BUILDING. AND HE IS SHOUTING “IDIOTS! IDIOTS!” LIKE I HAD SOMETHING TO DO WITH THIS. BOB IS GUFFAWING AND SEYMOUR’S HIS USUAL SELF WALKING AWAY. ‘WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE? I DON’T KNOW THEM.’ AND I’M, YOU KNOW, I, I’M LISTENING TO MY BROTHER LAUGH AT ME. HE’S JUST HOLDING HIS GUT. IT IS SO FUNNY.
As Lewin continued his questioning, a pall of expended adrenaline fell over the courtroom. Thomas Durst testified for a bit longer and answered some questions on rebuttal by Mr. DeGuerrin, but his expression of pent up anguish proved to be the first, truly searing moment of this trial.