Six things we learned from Oxygen's true-crime special
To anyone who’s seen HBO’s true-crime docu-series The Jinx or followed the ongoing legal troubles of Robert Durst in the news, it might have seemed as though the story of the idiosyncratic real estate heir couldn’t get any more bizarre — yet somehow it does in the fourth installment of Oxygen’s The Jury Speaks.
Durst, the 74-year-old scion of a New York dynasty worth $4.4 billion, has long been suspected of foul play in the disappearance of his first wife, Kathleen McCormack, in New York in 1982; the murder of his longtime friend Susan Berman in Los Angeles in 2000; and the fatal shooting of his neighbor Morris Black in Texas in 2001. Over the years Durst has both retreated from the public eye — jumping bail, donning outlandish disguises — and actively sought the spotlight, as when he participated in The Jinx and was famously caught on a hot mic saying he “killed them all.”
As Durst currently awaits trial for Berman’s execution-style slaying, The Jury Speaks examines his 2003 trial for the murder of Black through the eyes of the jurors who acquitted him and shocked a nation. Featured in the special, which aired Tuesday night, are jurors Deborah Warren, Joanne Gongora, Elridge Darby, Robbie Nelson, and Alice Walker; alternate juror Glenda Brents; and Susan Criss, the presiding judge. Here are six things we learned from them — including whether they would change their verdict in hindsight.
At the outset, the case appeared to be a slam-dunk for the prosecution: Black’s dismembered torso and limbs were found floating in garbage bags in Galveston Bay along with junk mail addressed to Durst’s apartment and hardware store receipts for a bow saw, a drop cloth, and trash bags. Police also discovered a pistol with a clip missing a single bullet in Durst’s apartment, and scratch marks and blood in the kitchen.
According to The Jury Speaks, the jurors were particularly struck by the gruesome images of Black’s butchered body.
“The most memorable moment that I had in the trial is the day that they showed us the photos,” Nelson said.
“When you see a body that is mutilated like that, it does something to you, and it’s something that doesn’t leave,” Brents added. “You feel queasy and nauseous.”
Gongora stated that the revelation of the receipts marked “another ah-ha moment, another strong piece of evidence. I thought, ‘It’s going to be a very interesting, interesting trial.'”
Led by attorney Dick DeGuerin, Durst’s high-powered legal team argued that he inadvertently shot Black, his close but cantankerous friend, in self-defense during a struggle, then disposed of the body because he feared police wouldn’t believe him. Durst’s lawyers successfully pushed the notion that dismembering Black’s body had nothing to do with whether the killing was self-defense or murder.
“It’s hard, but when they tell you [the dismemberment] is not anything to do with the trial, you’ve got to push that on the side,” Darby said.
Nelson said of Durst’s testimony, “He had an answer for everything that was posed to him. And the prosecution never came back to say, ‘Well the door wasn’t kicked in,’ or ‘Morris Black didn’t have a key.’ That falls on the prosecution of not proving that side of the case.”
The fact that Black’s head was never recovered also proved to be crucial: “Not having the head for the jury was a big thing because it gave the reasonable doubt of, we didn’t know [how he died],” Nelson said.
According to Nelson, “Our initial poll was, three thought he was guilty, five not guilty, and four did not know.”
Warren recalled that fellow juror Chris Lovell, who did not participate in the special, was outspoken in advocating for the defense. “Lovell said that as far as [Durst] cutting that body up, that’s another case and another day,” she said.
“Chris is real talkative,” Darby added. “Chris is liable to have talked from the time we probably got on the bus through the time we left deliberation.” (More on Lovell in a moment.)
Deliberations went on for several days. According to Warren, “It was a lot of crying, and it was a lot of praying, and it was a lot of ‘I don’t know,’ and then it was getting to the point it was like, ‘Well it’s time for you to know.'”
Eventually, the two holdouts against a not-guilty verdict came around. “I don’t know if some people were worn down and worn out and just said, ‘The hell away with it,’ but it became unanimous, 12-0,” Warren said.
The general public was shocked by the not-guilty verdict, and so was Brents. (As an alternate juror, she did not deliberate.)
“I had several phone calls from jurors,” Brents recalled. “I used a lot of choice words, and I was like, ‘You put a murderer on our streets. And when he kills again, it’s going to be on your head.'”
Brents also told the jurors during the special, “I sat through the same exact trial, you guys, and there would’ve been no one who could have convinced me to say ‘not guilty’ on that paper.”
A Curious Friendship
After the trial, many questions arose about Lovell, who struck up a friendship with Durst and visited him in jail while he was being held on lesser counts of bail-jumping and marijuana possession.
“I have been a criminal lawyer, prosecutor, judge for almost 30 years,” Criss said. “I have never seen the level of involvement or the kind of involvement that Chris Lovell and Robert Durst had after this trial.”
Brents said Lovell had threatened her on behalf of Durst: “He called me and he said, ‘I have a message for you from Durst. He doesn’t appreciate all your talk about him being guilty. He wants you to keep your mouth shut.'”
Judge Criss also stressed that, contrary to Lovell’s and the defense’s assertions, she never instructed the jury not to consider Black’s dismemberment. “They were told repeatedly by the defense attorneys that the dismemberment had no role in it. And the state did not try to explain to the jury that concealing the crime is considered evidence of guilt. And I couldn’t explain that to them for the state.”
She continued, “At some point during the deliberations, Chris Lovell started repeating that they had been instructed [that] they were not to consider anything after the actual shooting, and that was never in the instructions.”
Asked by a producer if she would call that tampering, Criss shrugged. “I don’t think that [Durst’s attorneys] Dick DeGuerin or Chip Lewis or Mike Ramsey would ever do anything inappropriate regarding a jury — I don’t suggest that,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean that someone else didn’t.”
Finally, the jurors gathered to discuss whether they would vote differently now, factoring in all they’ve learned about Durst since the trial.
Walker remained steadfast: “I have not heard or read anything about Robert Durst since the trial that would make me think anything different,” she said. “So I voted not guilty.”
All the other jurors, however, said they would now vote guilty, with some citing Durst’s apparent Jinx confession. “Coming straight out of the person’s mouth, guilty,” Warren said.
Gongora agreed, and also looked ahead to Durst’s looming trial for Berman’s murder. “When he goes for this next trial,” she said, “it can’t erase our verdict, but I hope that justice is done.”