Deputy DA John Lewin’s opening statement in the People v. Robert Durst ran for three captivating days. In a weekend blog discussion subsequent to Days One and Two, CRIME STORY teased out the cinematic trappings of Lewin’s presentation (The Prosecutor’s Cinematic Opening in The People vs. Robert Durst, March 7, 2020). On its third and final day, however, Lewin’s opening statement revealed an added layer of complexity. What had already been a dramatic, binge-worthy summary of the evidence against Durst suddenly took a highly personal turn. Having spent the previous two days tracing the defendant’s bloody path from Kathie Durst to Susan Berman and then to Morris Black, on Monday Lewin placed himself in the middle of that story — not only as storyteller, but as a character. And a vital one at that.
A cold-case specialist with the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, John Lewin’s laser-focus on the Durst case has earned him both praise and contempt. Some, like the New York Times’ Charles V. Bagli, recognize his “encyclopedic knowledge of Mr. Durst, his history, his friends and his alleged victims;” adversaries, like Dick DeGuerin, regard him as a “bully.” When it comes to investigating past crimes, Lewin owns both his abilities and his doggedness. “I have a specialty in these areas,” Lewin informed the jury on Day Two. “This is what I do.” On Day Three of his opening, Lewin’s account shifts from third to first person and “what he does” was turned up to 11.
As any casual TV viewer might recognize, DDA Lewin has morphed into our audience proxy, our “relatable” way in. Cue Lewin and DDA Habib Balian’s efforts to get longtime Durst friends Nick Chavin and Emily Altman to reveal what they know about the defendant. Suddenly the People’s sprawling pseudo-documentary has become a taut procedural. And Lewin is our compelling lead.
With Durst in custody (beginning in March, 2015), prosecutors were at last able to approach his friends and associates without fear of spooking the defendant. Nick Chavin, Lewin tells the jury, was “at the top of the list.” According to Lewin, when he and Balian telephoned Chavin on April 6, 2015, he was obstinate, “reluctant to supply any information about his close friend.” Undaunted, Lewin patiently began to pick at Chavin’s conflicting loyalties, playing on his guilty conscience. At issue is what exactly Durst said to Chavin outside a Harlem restaurant in December, 2014 about Susan Berman’s death. In the recorded phone calls, Chavin is vague at first, telling Lewin and Balian that Durst had been noncommittal, “shrugging and mumbling something.” In a subsequent phone call, Chavin tells the investigators that he “wants to take it back.” Playing snippets of the recorded conversations for the jury, Lewin demonstrates that he and Habib Balian tag-teamed Chavin for months, for years, nudging and empathizing and nudging some more, shaping a reluctant witness into a more cooperative one.
Chavin’s transformation is matched, step by step, with Lewin’s gradual emergence as a player with a major, speaking role — moral, empathic, relentless. “We’re all responsible for the choices we make,” Lewin reminds Chavin over the phone. “You’ve been waiting for this call from us… It’s like pulling off a band-aid.” Pursued, cornered, shamed, even Chavin can’t help but appreciate Lewin’s psychological insight. “It’s like you know what’s going on in my mind,” he marvels. Lewin and Balian persist until February 16, 2017, when Chavin finally tears off that band-aid and divulges the full details of his Harlem conversation with Robert Durst.
NICK CHAVIN: WE WALKED OUT THE DOOR — THIS IS HARD. WE WALKED OUT THE DOOR AND ON THE SIDEWALK I SAID, “YOU WANTED TO TALK ABOUT SUSAN.” AND BOB SAID, “I HAD TO. IT WAS HER OR ME. I HAD NO CHOICE.”
After years of persuasion, Lewin’s star witness delivers the goods. And the jury is along for the ride.
Lewin’s questioning of Emily Altman is far less delicate. Called to Los Angeles in July, 2017 to testify, Emily Altman arrived accompanied by two private attorneys. They provided her little cover, however, during her grueling three days on the witness stand. In Altman’s videotaped testimony (portions of which were shown during the opening), Lewin is relentless, alternating between disbelief and sarcasm as he drills down on her muted reaction to Kathie Durst’s continued disappearance and later, to Susan Berman’s murder.
LEWIN: LET ME ASK YOU THIS. I WOULD ASSUME IF YOU’RE TALKING TO BOB, RIGHT, AND YOU HAVEN’T TALKED TO HIM FOR A WHILE, AM I CORRECT THAT A QUESTION THAT MIGHT COME UP AT THE TOP OF THE LIST WOULD BE, “HEY, BOB, HAS ANYBODY HEARD FROM YOUR MISSING WIFE?”
ALTMAN: I’D SAY, “HAS ANYBODY HEARD FROM KATHY?”
LEWIN: RIGHT. BUT THAT WOULD BE A SUBJECT THAT YOU THINK WOULD COME UP, RIGHT?
ALTMAN: POSSIBLY, YEAH.
LEWIN: POSSIBLY? SO IT WOULDN’T BE — SO YOU MIGHT COVER FIRST, “HEY, BOB, HOW ABOUT THOSE METS? HOW ARE THE YANKEES DOING? DID YOU SEE THAT NEW OPERA?”
Later, having established that Durst told Altman that he was in Los Angeles in December, 2000, at the time of Susan’s murder, Lewin is frustrated when Altman tries to walk back her admission; she claims that she is suddenly uncertain if it was Durst or her husband, Stewart, who had supplied that information. Lewin refuses to let her off the hook.
LEWIN: MA’AM, SO ISN’T IT TRUE THAT THE MEMORY THAT IN FACT THE STATEMENT HAD BEEN MADE, NOT FROM BOB TO YOU, BUT FROM BOB TO STEWART, CAME FROM STEWART AND NOT FROM YOU?
ALTMAN: MY HUSBAND — SORRY. WHEN HE SPOKE TO ME IT’S VERY POSSIBLE THAT — THAT I WAS WRONG, THAT I CONFUSED IT. SO IT’S NOT THAT HE PUT WORDS IN MY MOUTH, AND I THINK THAT’S WHAT YOU’RE TRYING TO SAY AND THAT’S NOT WHAT HAPPENED.
LEWIN: SO LISTEN TO MY QUESTION, MA’AM. PRIOR TO YOUR HUSBAND SAYING THAT TO YOU, YOUR BELIEF WAS YOU HAD HEARD IT FROM BOB; CORRECT?
LEWIN: AND NOW YOUR HUSBAND SAYS, “NO, EMILY, YOU HEARD IT FROM ME”; IS THAT CORRECT?
ALTMAN: THAT’S NOT EXACTLY WHAT HE SAID, NO.
LEWIN: TELL ME EXACTLY WHAT HE SAID.
ALTMAN: I CAN’T. YOU’D HAVE TO ASK HIM.
LEWIN: NO. I’M ASKING — MA’AM, MA’AM —
ALTMAN: I’M TRYING. I’M TRYING.
As the drama unspools, we see that Lewin’s character is clearly capable of empathy, but he can also turn the screws… tighter and tighter. Cornered, Altman attempts to push back, providing Lewin with a concise character tag in the process.
LEWIN: IS THERE SOME REASON WHY, WHEN I HAD ASKED YOU PREVIOUSLY NUMEROUS TIMES EVERYTHING BOB DURST HAS EVER TOLD YOU ABOUT SUSAN BERMAN’S MURDER THAT YOU DID NOT REMEMBER AT THAT TIME, OH, YEAH, HE DID MENTION THAT THING ABOUT BEING IN BEVERLY HILLS AT THE TIME SHE WAS MURDERED?
ALTMAN: YOU’RE SCARY AND INTIMIDATING, OKAY?
LEWIN: WHAT’S THAT?
ALTMAN: YOU’RE SCARY AND INTIMIDATING.
On the final day (I almost wrote “episode”) of the People’s opening statement, Lewin the Prosecutor inserted himself directly into the narrative as Lewin the Investigator, presenting evidence and revealing the techniques he uses to uncover that evidence. Documentary becomes procedural and we all lean in.
Lewin’s personal and professional passions will be center-screen in this legal thriller. Which is fitting. Because this is what he does.