It is rare for a jury to hear from a victim in a murder trial. But… Kathie Durst finally has her opportunity to offer her contribution to the effort to hold Robert Durst accountable for his actions. Nearly 40 years after her disappearance, Kathie’s plea is being relayed to a Los Angeles jury through her friend Marion Watlington.
WATLINGTON: SHE SAID, SHOULD ANYTHING HAPPEN TO ME, YOU MAKE SURE YOU DON’T LET THE BASTARD GET AWAY WITH IT.
Watlington, a blonde-haired woman in her early to mid-70s clad in black, is a witness for the Prosecution in the trial of Robert Durst for the murder of Susan Berman. The Prosecution intends to convince the jury that Durst killed Berman as part of his efforts to cover up his responsibility for the murder of his wife, Kathie Durst.
In questioning Watlington, the Prosecution and the Defense will shape how the jurors fit her testimony into their understanding of what happened to Kathie Durst. The two sides bring vastly different strategies to their efforts to contextualize for the jury Watlington’s relationship with Kathie, and Kathie’s final words of fear and foreboding.
The Prosecution begins spinning its version of the narrative by leading Watlington through how the two women became friends in the first place.
LEWIN: SO WHEN KATHIE MET YOU, WHAT DID SHE SAY?
WATLINGTON: SHE SAID, MARION, I UNDERSTAND YOU’RE GOING INTO MEDICINE AND THAT’S EXACTLY WHAT I WANT TO DO TOO.
LEWIN: SO WHAT’S THE NEXT THING THAT HAPPENED BETWEEN THE YOU AND KATHIE?
WATLINGTON: WE, WE BECAME FRIENDLY. I MET WITH HER OUTSIDE OF THE SCHOOL AND WE TALKED AT LENGTH ABOUT HOW SHE COULD MANAGE TO DO THAT. I TOLD HER OF MY EXPERIENCES AND HOW I WENT ABOUT IT AND I SAID, I THINK YOU CAN JUST FOLLOW IN MY FOOTSTEPS AND APPLYING TO THE SCHOOLS AROUND THE AREA WHERE YOU LIVE THAT YOU THINK YOU COULD COMMUTE TO. AND THIS IS HOW WE DID IT.
LEWIN: IS IT FAIR TO SAY THAT YOU SERVED AS A MENTOR TO KATHIE?
WATLINGTON: VERY MUCH.
LEWIN: SO HOW MUCH OLDER APPROXIMATELY IF YOU CAN RECALL WERE YOU THAN KATHIE?
WATLINGTON: HOW MUCH OLDER WAS I?
WATLINGTON: UM, I THINK IT WAS FIVE OR SEVEN YEARS. SOMETHING LIKE THAT.
The two women met at Western Connecticut State College in 1977, where Watlington was filling in as an instructor to a group of nursing students, which included Kathie before she switched to pre-med.
LEWIN: AND IN TERMS OF WHAT KATHIE WAS LIKE SPECIFICALLY AS A STUDENT, CAN YOU DESCRIBE HER AS A STUDENT?
WATLINGTON: I WAS STRUCK BY HOW INTELLIGENT AND HOW BRIGHT SHE WAS. SHE WAS HEAD AND SHOULDERS OVER HER OTHER STUDENTS AROUND HER. SHE EASILY GRASPED CONCEPTS AND WAS ALERT AND COMFORTABLE WITH THE LEARNING AND THE CHALLENGE OF GOING ON.
LEWIN: AND AS ONE OF HER INSTRUCTORS, WERE YOU AWARE – I’M NOT ASKING FOR HER EXACT GRADE POINT – BUT HOW DID SHE DO?
WATLINGTON: SHE DID VERY WELL.
LEWIN: WERE YOU IN CONTACT WITH KATHIE AS SHE WAS APPLYING TO MEDICAL SCHOOL?
LEWIN: AND DID YOU HAVE INVOLVEMENT IN HELPING HER PREPARE HER APPLICATIONS?
WATLINGTON: NO, SHE DID THAT ALL ON HER OWN.
LEWIN: DID YOU DISCUSS ISSUES RELATING TO APPLYING WHERE SHE SHOULD GO? WHAT WOULD MAKE HER STRONG CANDIDATE, ET CETERA?
WATLINGTON: NOT REALLY. SHE SEEMED TO BE MORE THAN CAPABLE OF DOING ALL OF THAT ON HER OWN.
LEWIN: BASED ON WHAT YOU KNEW ABOUT KATHIE DURST, IF IT WERE SUGGESTED THAT KATHIE ONLY GOT INTO MEDICAL SCHOOL BECAUSE OF FAMILY CONNECTION, WHAT WOULD BE YOUR RESPONSE TO THAT?
WATLINGTON: I WOULD SAY THAT’S JUST NOT TRUE.
As Deputy District Attorney John Lewin guides Watlington, she presents her relationship with Kathie Durst as a healthy friendship between intelligent and ambitious peers.
LEWIN: AND YOU INDICATED THAT KATHIE WAS, YOU SAID HEAD AND SHOULDERS ABOVE THE OTHER STUDENTS AT WESTERN CONNECTICUT. CAN YOU TELL ME IN TERMS OF HER ATTITUDE AND DEMEANOR, HOW EXCITED WAS SHE ABOUT BECOMING A DOCTOR?
WATLINGTON: SHE WAS JUST A DELIGHTFUL PERSON TO KNOW. THIS WAS A BIG AMBITION OF HERS. WE WERE TWO PEOPLE HEADING IN THE SAME DIRECTION AND I FOUND HER TO BE VERY MUCH MOTIVATED AND INTRIGUED AND INTERESTED. SHE TALKED ABOUT BEING A PEDIATRICIAN.
Lewin’s questioning leads Watlington to recall moments of excitement, sadness, and terror. For jurors, the testimony offers a visceral connection to Kathie, providing a window into the final, turbulent years of her marriage to Robert Durst.
As Watlington’s narrative moves into the heart of those dark times, Lewin subtly guides her to delve into the emotional aspects of her memories.
LEWIN: AND IF YOU COULD RECALL RIGHT NOW, CAN YOU PLEASE INDICATE – DURING THOSE CALLS – WHAT WAS KATHIE’S DEMEANOR? CAN YOU DESCRIBE IT PLEASE?
WATLINGTON: SHE WAS JUST VERY ANGRY, UPSET.
LEWIN: WHAT WAS HER TONE OF VOICE?
WATLINGTON: DISTRAUGHT. SHE WAS UPSET, I CAN SAY THAT. SHE TOLD ME THAT SHE HAD BEEN BEATEN UP BY HER HUSBAND TO THE POINT WHERE SHE HAD GONE TO THE HOSPITAL AND THEY HAD TAKEN PICTURES TO DOCUMENT HER INJURIES.
LEWIN: WHAT DID YOU SAY TO HER IN RESPONSE?
WATLINGTON: I WAS EXTREMELY WORRIED FOR HER. SHE SAID SHE WANTED TO GET A DIVORCE, AND I WAS WORRIED THAT SHE WOULD BE IN FURTHER DANGER OF BEING BEATEN BY HIM AND POSSIBLY LOSE HER LIFE.
LEWIN: DID YOU EXPRESS THOSE CONCERNS TO HER?
WATLINGTON: YES, I DID.
LEWIN: AND WHAT WAS HER RESPONSE WHEN YOU EXPRESSED THOSE CONCERNS?
WATLINGTON: SHE SAID, I’M, I’M GONNA LEAVE HIM SOON, BUT I WANT TO STAY FOR A LITTLE LONGER.
LEWIN: DID SHE EXPLAIN TO YOU WHY?
WATLINGTON: YES. SHE WANTED TO GET PAPERWORK, AND THINGS LIKE THAT TO JUSTIFY A PROPER TYPE OF SETTLEMENT FROM HIM IN DIVORCE PROCEEDINGS.
LEWIN: IF I WERE TO ASK YOU ABOUT KATHIE’S PERSONALITY, I WOULD SAY, UM, DO YOU KNOW WHAT THE TERM DOORMAT IS? IT’S NOT A VERY NICE TERM. WOULD YOU CONSIDER A KATHIE TO BE A DOORMAT OR A STRONGER PERSON?
WATLINGTON: SHE WAS NO DOORMAT.
LEWIN: WITH RESPECT TO HER HUSBAND. AND THE WAY THAT SHE TALKED TO YOU ON THE PHONE ABOUT THE RELATIONSHIP, DID IT APPEAR THAT WHEN YOU CAME TO HER HUSBAND AND WHAT SHE WAS TELLING YOU, WAS SHE THE SAME STRONG PERSON THAT YOU KNEW HER TO BE?
WATLINGTON: I THINK SHE WAS WALKING TENTATIVELY AROUND HIM BECAUSE OF THE VIOLENCE THAT WAS OCCURRING.
Much like he did in his opening statement, Lewin weaves the tale together cinematically, culminating in Kathie Durst speaking directly to the jurors from the past…
LEWIN: WHEN YOU EXPRESSED TO HER THAT YOU WERE AFRAID THAT IT MIGHT ESCALATE AND THAT SHE MIGHT LOSE HER LIFE. DID SHE SAY ANYTHING TO REASSURE YOU OTHER THAN “I NEED TO GET THESE PAPERS, I NEED TO STAY?”
WATLINGTON: SHE SAID, ‘SHOULD ANYTHING HAPPEN TO ME, YOU MAKE SURE YOU DON’T LET THE BASTARDS GET AWAY WITH IT.’
LEWIN: THAT STATEMENT WHERE KATHY SAID, IF SOMETHING HAPPENS TO ME, DON’T LET THEM GET AWAY WITH IT. YOU JUST TESTIFIED TO THAT A MOMENT AGO.
LEWIN: YOU STATED THAT TO INVESTIGATORS PREVIOUSLY BEFORE TODAY IN COURT, CORRECT?
WATLINGTON: I DID CALL WHEN SHE DISAPPEARED.
CHESNOFF: YOUR HONOR…
JUDGE WINDHAM: THERE IS NO QUESTION PENDING.
LEWIN: WHEN HAVE YOU SAID THAT STATEMENT BEFORE?
WATLINGTON: I CALLED THE POLICE IN NEW YORK WHEN HER PICTURE APPEARED IN THE PAPER SAYING “MISSING.”
LEWIN: LET ME STOP YOU. IS THAT GOING TO BE BACK NEAR WHEN SHE DISAPPEARED IN FEBRUARY OF 1982?
LEWIN: AND WHO DID YOU CALL?
WATLINGTON: THERE WAS A NUMBER IN THE NEW YORK POST, IN THE ARTICLE UNDER HER PICTURE AND IT WAS OF THE POLICE. SO I CALLED THAT NUMBER… AND I JUST SPOKE TO AN ANONYMOUS POLICEMAN AND THAT’S IT.
LEWIN: AND DID YOU GIVE THE INFORMATION THAT YOU HAVE JUST RELATED?
WATLINGTON: I DID. I WILL NEVER FORGET THOSE WORDS.
The Defense has a storytelling strategy as well. David Chesnoff begins cross-examination by seeking to establish that Watlington is hostile towards Robert Durst, and that her testimony is prejudiced against him. Through his questioning, Chesnoff reveals that Watlington rebuffed all efforts by Durst’s lawyers to talk with her while speaking with prosecutors multiple times. He follows that by suggesting that, far from a victim, Kathie benefitted from Durst’s largesse and relished the lifestyle he provided her.
CHESNOFF: KATHIE WAS LIVING A VERY NICE LIFESTYLE AT THE TIME WAS SHE NOT?
CHESNOFF: AND THAT’S BECAUSE MR. DURST IN PART WAS ABLE TO PROVIDE HER WITH THAT, CORRECT?
WATLINGTON: I HAVE NO KNOWLEDGE OF HOW THEY ARRANGED THEIR FINANCES.
CHESNOFF: WELL, YOU KNEW THAT MR. DURST, TO QUOTE YOU “TRAVELED IN HIGH CIRCLES.”
WATLINGTON: I DID. I KNEW THAT THEY LIVED IN NEW YORK CITY AND THEY OFTEN WERE IN SOCIAL CIRCLES WITH THE MAYORS AND POLITICIANS OF NEW YORK CITY. THAT’S WHAT I MEANT BY THAT.
When Lewin objects, one wonders whether its merely on legal grounds or part of a larger effort to disrupt any momentum that Chesnoff may be building in crafting a compelling cinematic counter-narrative for the jurors.
CHESNOFF: AND YOU SAID THAT YOU THOUGHT BOB SEEMED WITHDRAWN, CORRECT?
CHESNOFF: YOU’RE A MEDICAL DOCTOR. VERY WELL EDUCATED. WOULD YOU CHARACTERIZE BOB AS BEING SOCIALLY AWKWARD?
LEWIN: YOUR HONOR, THAT CALLS FOR AN EXPERTISE AND A FOUNDATION THAT’S NOT BEEN DEMONSTRATED.
JUDGE WINDHAM: OVERRULED. LAY OPINION.
LEWIN: YOUR HONOR, CAN WE CLARIFY THAT IT’S LAY OPINION, NOT HER AS A DOCTOR, THAT’S MY PROBLEM WITH THAT.
CHESNOFF: CAN HE DO THIS ON HIS EXAMINATION WHEN I’M FINISHED, YOUR HONOR?
LEWIN: NO, IT’S AN OBJECTION.
CHESNOFF: THEN MAKE AN OBJECTION THEN DON’T SPEAK.
Chesnoff appears particularly tone-deaf in his narrative when he asks Watlington about Gilberte Najamy, one of the last people to ever see Kathie.
CHESNOFF: DO YOU REMEMBER WHEN YOU TALKED TO LAW ENFORCEMENT, DESCRIBING A FRIEND OF KATHIE DURST’S, A LADY NAMED GILBERTE NAJAMY. YOU REMEMBER TALKING ABOUT HER TO THE POLICE, OR MR. LEWIN?
WATLINGTON: YES. I REMEMBER WHEN THEY TALKED TO ME IN AUSTRALIA AND IN 2015, CORRECT?
CHESNOFF: YES. AND WHEN YOU WERE SPEAKING TO THEM, YOU DESCRIBED GILBERTE NAJIMI AS BEING KIND OF A PARTY PERSON. YOU RECALL THAT? THAT SHE THREW BIG FUNCTIONS?
WATLINGTON: THIS WAS FIVE YEARS AGO…
CHESNOFF: OR EVEN NOT WHEN YOU SPOKE TO THEM. DO YOU REMEMBER THAT NOW?
WATLINGTON: I REMEMBER GILBERTE NAJIMI. I MET HER AFTER KATHIE DISAPPEARED. I HEARD OF HER AND I MET HER AFTER SHE DISAPPEARED. PROBABLY TWO OR THREE OF US GOT TOGETHER AND WERE ASKING EACH OTHER “WHERE COULD KATHIE HAVE GONE?”
CHESNOFF: BUT FOCUSING ON THE QUESTION. DID YOU KNOW MISS NAJIMI AS PERSON THAT HAS PARTIES?
WATLINGTON: I KNOW THAT SHE CATERED PARTIES.
CHESNOFF: AND DID YOU DESCRIBE GILBERTE AS KATHIE DURST’S LOVE FRIEND? YOU REMEMBER SAYING THAT?
WATLINGTON: NO, I DID NOT DESCRIBE HER. SHE WAS DESCRIBED TO ME AS POSSIBLY HER LOVE FRIEND. I HAD NEVER HEARD THAT BEFORE.
CHESNOFF: WHO DESCRIBED THAT TO YOU?
LEWIN: YOUR HONOR, THIS IS ABSOLUTELY IRRELEVANT. UNDER 352, OFFER OF PROOF, YOUR HONOR?
CHESNOFF: THIS IS THE HOME THAT SHE WAS AT THE NIGHT THAT SHE CAME BACK TO THE HOUSE ON THE 31ST
JUDGE WINDHAM: OK WE’LL MOVE ON FROM THIS.
Were Kathie Durst and Gilberte Najimi lovers? Chesnoff apparently hopes that this unfounded implication will tarnish the jurors’ perceptions of them both. But Watlington shuts down that line of questioning.
WATLINGTON: WHEN I SPOKE TO GILBERTE, SHE SAID “WE HAD A PARTY PLAN FOR KATHIE“ OR WANTED HER TO COME TO A PARTY AND IT WAS AT GILBERTE’S HOME. I THINK GILBERTE WAS GAY AND I THINK SHE HAD A PARTNER, BUT THAT’S ABOUT ALL I KNOW.
Chesnoff’s next few questions suggest that Watlington did not initially take Kathie Durst’s comments seriously. If she had, he says, she would have reported them to the police.
CHESNOFF: DID YOU EVER REPORT TO ANY AUTHORITY EITHER AT THE SCHOOL OR LAW ENFORCEMENT, ANY OF YOUR CONCERNS AS A RESULT OF THE PHONE CONVERSATIONS THAT YOU HAD WITH MRS DURST BEFORE THE CALL YOU SAY YOU MADE TO THE POLICE AFTER JANUARY 31ST?
CHESNOFF: SO YOUR FRIEND IS TELLING YOU ABOUT ALL THESE BAD THINGS THAT ARE HAPPENING, BUT YOU NEVER REPORTED IT TO ANYBODY, DID YOU?
CHESNOFF: DID YOU EVER TELL HER TO SEEK A COUNSELOR THAT YOU RECALL?
WATLINGTON: WE TALKED, WE TALKED AT LENGTH ABOUT, YOU KNOW, I WAS SO WORRIED ABOUT HER BEING BEATEN.
CHESNOFF: YOU’RE NOT ANSWERING MY QUESTION.
WATLINGTON: I DON’T KNOW THAT I DID.
CHESNOFF: THANK YOU. I’M NOT TRYING TO BE QUARRELSOME, BUT YOU HAVE TO LISTEN. I’M TRYING TO ASK QUESTIONS.
Lewin, in his re-direct examination, will later allow Watlington to clarify that the reason that she did not go to the authorities with her concerns was that she knew that no one would hold the Dursts accountable.
Chesnoff also uses Watlington’s cross-examination to continue his efforts to paint an image of Kathie as an erratic drug abuser. And again, Deputy DA Lewin objects.
CHESNOFF: NOW, ON THESE OCCASIONS WHERE YOU SPOKE TO HER ON THE PHONE LATE AT NIGHT, YOU’VE ACKNOWLEDGED THAT SHE WAS DRUNK, CORRECT?
WATLINGTON: SHE WAS DRUNK ON ONE OCCASION, I COULD TELL.
CHESNOFF: AND SHE WAS GOING ON AND ON AND ON, WAS SHE NOT?
WATLINGTON: SHE WAS.
CHESNOFF: OKAY. AND NOW, AS A MEDICAL DOCTOR, IS TALKING A LOT, GOING ON AND ON, SOMETIMES CONSISTENT WITH COCAINE USE?
CHESNOFF: EXCUSE ME. IS THAT AN OBJECTION?
JUDGE WINDHAM: SUSTAINED.
WATLINGTON: I THINK IT’S CONSISTENT.
JUDGE WINDHAM: SUSTAINED. YOU CAN ESTABLISH YOUR FOUNDATION IN DRUG ABUSE IF YOU BELIEVE SHE HAS IT, GO AHEAD.
CHESNOFF: IN YOUR EXPERIENCE AS A MEDICAL DOCTOR, HAVE YOU BEEN TRAINED ON THE EFFECTS OF NARCOTICS ON PEOPLE?
WATLINGTON: I HAVE DONE SOME TRAINING IN THAT. I DID NOT HAVE THAT TRAINING AT THE TIME.
CHESNOFF: BUT NOW YOU HAVE THAT TRAINING?
WATLINGTON: I DO.
CHESNOFF: AND ARE YOU FAMILIAR AS A RESULT OF YOUR TRAINING, OF THE EFFECTS THAT COCAINE HAS ON PEOPLE?
WATLINGTON: SOMEWHAT, YES.
CHESNOFF: AND ARE YOU AWARE OF, AS A RESULT OF YOUR TRAINING, THAT COCAINE CAN CAUSE PEOPLE TO TALK EXCESSIVELY, INCESSANTLY FOR LONG PERIODS OF TIME?
Finally, the Defense tries to use Watlington’s testimony to revive a tactic that had been denied them throughout the three-plus years of motion hearings on the case — third party culpability. Chesnoff suggests that Watlington misunderstood Kathie Durst’s plea, “Don’t let the bastard get away with it.” Instead, he asks, if Kathie could have been referring to Robert Durst’s father, Seymour, with whom Kathie Durst also had a strained relationship?
CHESNOFF: NOW AT SOME POINT IN TIME DID SHE TELL YOU THAT SHE WAS AFRAID SEYMOUR DURST WAS GOING TO KILL HER?
LEWIN: OBJECTION, RELEVANCE, YOUR HONOR. ALSO, IT’S HEARSAY. ABSOLUTELY.
JUDGE WINDHAM: OVERRULED.
LEWIN: CAN THE JURY BE INSTRUCTED THEN ASKED YOU HOW THEY CANNOT USE THAT INFORMATION?
JUDGE WINDHAM: YES. SO, LET’S SEE WHAT THE ANSWER IS.
CHESNOFF: DID SHE TELL YOU THAT?
WATLINGTON: SHE WAS WARY OF THE FAMILY A LITTLE BIT, YES.
CHESNOFF: AND SHE TOLD YOU THAT SEYMOUR DURST WAS… SHE WAS AFRAID THAT SEYMOUR DURST WAS GOING TO KILL HER IN ONE OF THESE CONVERSATIONS, CORRECT?
LEWIN: YOUR HONOR, THE SAME OBJECTION, YOUR HONOR.
JUDGE WINDHAM: SUSTAINED.
Again Lewin objects, and again any narrative impact of Chesnoff’s speculation seems muted.
Overall, jurors seem genuinely disturbed by the nature of Kathie’s phone calls and captivated by the gravitas in Watlington’s testimony. And they sit in rapt attention when she delivers Kathie’s plea.
WATLINGTON: DON’T LET THE BASTARD GET AWAY WITH IT.
By contrast, the jury seems confused by Chesnoff’s narrative tactics, which feel like pin-pricks to the image of Kathie Durst’s character, and do little to diminish the wrenching image of an abused woman in grave distress in the months before her disappearance.
And thanks to her friend Marion Watlington, Kathie Durst has had her day in court.
You can find all of CRIME STORY’S reporting on the Durst trial here. This story was originally published under the title A Little Dog Named Lulu (and the Trial of Robert Durst). It has been modified to add the testimony of an additional witness.