Los Angeles

Friend of Durst Reluctantly Gives Testimony in Murder Case

Emily and Stewart Altman have fought efforts to make them testify in Durst's murder trial.

A close friend of Robert Durst wept on the witness stand Tuesday as she reluctantly testified for the prosecution in the murder case against the New York real estate scion, saying she has a hard time believing he could be guilty of killing one of his friends in Benedict Canyon.

Emily Altman was subpoenaed by the prosecution along with her husband, Stewart. The couple have known Durst since high school, and Stewart Altman has acted as Durst's attorney on various issues over the years.

The Altmans have fought efforts to make them testify in Durst's murder trial. Prosecutors want them to discuss their conversations with Durst around the time of the December 2000 killing of 55-year-old writer Susan Berman, who was shot in the back of the head in her Benedict Canyon home.

Prosecutors contend Durst, 74, killed Berman because she was about to speak to police in New York in a renewed investigation into the Jan. 31, 1982, disappearance of Durst's wife, Kathleen.

Prosecutors argue that Berman, who was a confidante of Robert Durst, had extensive knowledge of Kathie Durst's fate, with one witness testifying earlier that Berman even impersonated the missing woman in a phone call after her disappearance. Kathie Durst has never been found.

In court Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning, defense attorneys objected to Emily Altman being called to the stand in a hearing in which some witnesses are testifying in advance in case they are somehow unavailable when Durst goes to trial. Defense attorneys suggested that discussions between Durst and the Altmans can fall under attorney-client privilege, given Stewart Altman's legal representation of Durst and Emily's work as her husband's secretary.

Los Angeles County prosecutors dismiss that contention, noting that the Altman's have given televised interviews about Durst in the past. Emily Altman also turned over a box of Durst's documents to the producers of the HBO documentary "The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst." The documentary examined the disappearance of Durst's wife in 1982, the killing of Berman and the 2001 dismemberment murder of Durst's Texas neighbor, Morris Black. Durst was tried but acquitted of Black's murder.

"The nature of Emily and (Durst's) relationship is exclusively personal, a fact which is supported by both their conduct and statements," Deputy District Attorney John Lewin wrote in a motion filed Tuesday in support of Altman being allowed to testify. "There is nothing in the way they have conducted themselves that in any way suggests that defendant ever had an attorney-client relationship with Emily."

Lewin notes in the motion that Emily Altman and Durst often had extensive personal phone conversations when Durst was jailed in Pennsylvania and Louisiana, and her jail visits with Durst were classified as a "family visit."

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mark Windham allowed Altman to take the stand. She said she considers herself a close, dear friend of Durst. Asked what she would think of Durst if he is convicted of killing Berman, she responded that she doesn't think "you can judge a person's entire life by one act."

She also testified that Durst and his wife Kathie were both "seeing other people" before Kathie Durst disappeared.

Stewart Altman is expected to be called to testify at a hearing in August. Durst has denied any involvement in Berman's death and insists he has no information about his first wife's disappearance.

Durst was arrested March 14, 2015, in a New Orleans hotel room, hours before the airing of the final episode of "The Jinx." On the documentary series finale, Durst was caught on microphone saying to himself, "Killed them all, of course." He also was heard saying, "There it is, you're caught," and "What a disaster."

During a New Orleans jailhouse interview with Lewin, Durst said he was "on meth" while the documentary was being filmed and that he didn't heed his attorneys' advice not to be interviewed for the series.

The murder charge against Durst includes the special circumstance allegation of murder of a witness and murder while lying in wait, along with gun use allegations. However, the District Attorney's Office does not plan to seek the death penalty.

Defense attorneys have objected to the idea that their client -- who was in a wheelchair but is now up and walking -- could be a threat to any possible trial witnesses, particularly since allegations of wrongdoing against him suggest he has always acted alone.

Copyright CNS - City News Service
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