GALVESTON, Texas – A jury on Tuesday delivered a stunning verdict of not guilty in the murder case of cross-dressing New York millionaire Robert Durst (search).
Durst was on trial for the shooting death of his 71-year-old neighbor, Morris Black (search), whose body was chopped up and thrown into Galveston Bay.
After five days of deliberation, jurors decided that the real estate heir did not murder Black, who lived across the hall from him in a low-rent apartment building.
Durst, 60, who is under suspicion in two other killings, testified in his own defense for nearly four days. He insisted that Black was shot accidentally during a struggle, and said that in a panic he then dismembered the body. The victim's head has never been found.
Durst appeared stunned when he heard the verdict from state District Judge Susan Criss, standing with his mouth slightly open and his eyes filling with tears. He hugged his attorneys afterward, saying: "Thank you so much."
In a news conference following the verdict, defense attorneys thanked the jury for not letting the sensationalistic details of the case affect their decision. And they said their client was truly sorry for what happened.
"Bob was horrified at some of the things that he did and he's tried to block from his mind pretty successfully some of the details," defense attorney Dick DeGuerin told reporters. "It's not a selective memory. It's something that's caused by the state he was in at the time when he did some of these things."
Prosecutor Kurt Sistrunk said he was dismayed and disappointed with the jury's decision but retained his confidence in the jury system.
After the killing in late September 2001, Durst was a fugitive for six weeks until he was caught in Pennsylvania when he tried to shoplift a $5 sandwich even though he had $500 in his pocket.
At defense attorneys' request, jurors considered only a murder charge. They could have asked that jurors consider a lesser charge, such as manslaughter, in addition to murder.
If he had been convicted, Durst could have been received a prison sentence from five to 99 years and a fine of up to $10,000.
The verdict was reached after nearly six weeks of testimony.
Juror Chris Lovell said he changed his mind several times before making a final decision.
"From the very beginning of this trial, the defense told us a story and they stuck to their guns all the way through," he said. "I did not believe everything they said, but every time they told us a story they were consistent in what was said."
Another juror, Deborah Warren, said the panel made a great effort to figure out what happened before Black died, based on the evidence they were given.
"There were people that cried, there were people that fussed and argued. ... My stomach is still knotted up," she said.
Legal analysts said they were surprised by the verdict. Ken Padowitz, a former prosecutor, summed up his thoughts about the jury to Fox News this way: "What were these people smoking?"
But Fox News' senior judicial analyst Andrew P. Napolitano said that in one way, the verdict was not unexpected. "Texas has the broadest self-defense principle in the union," he said. "This is a defense that rings true with Texans."
The Trial of Robert Durst
Prosecutors called Durst a calculating, cold-blooded killer who shot Black to steal his identity. They said all his actions afterward, including cutting up the body and twice fleeing Galveston, were part of an elaborate plan to hide his guilt.
But defense attorneys contended Black was shot accidentally while the two men struggled for a gun after Durst found his neighbor illegally in his apartment. The defense said prosecutors failed to show jurors any motive for the killing or disprove self-defense.
"Whatever [Durst] did after Morris Black was dead cannot change how Morris Black died," DeGuerin said in his closing statement. "You can't convict Bob Durst simply because of that."
But prosecutors told the jurors they didn't have to prove a motive.
Sistrunk said Durst cut up Black's body without hesitation, meticulously cleaned the crime scene, reserved a flight to leave the area and dumped the body but later returned to retrieve the head because it could identify his victim.
"Is it well planned and calculated? You bet it is," Sistrunk said.
Durst moved to Galveston in November 2000 disguised as a woman to escape scrutiny in New York after an investigation was reopened into the 1982 disappearance of his first wife, Kathleen. He used the name Dorothy Ciner, a childhood friend.
After he jumped bail in Black's killing, Galveston authorities learned he was wanted for questioning in his first wife's disappearance and in the Christmas Eve 2000 shooting death in Los Angeles of a friend, writer Susan Berman, who was set to be questioned about his missing wife.
He met Black while wearing his disguise but later dropped the masquerade and they became friends.
Durst's attorneys said the friendship soured because of the elderly man's increasingly aggressive behavior. Durst and other witnesses testified Black often got into fights and arguments with people.
Neighbors "could hear Morris Black two blocks down the road when he was in his rages," said Debra Monogan, who once lived upstairs from Black in South Carolina.
Prosecutors said Black was abrasive but not violent.
Durst took the stand and testified that he discovered Black in his apartment on Sept. 28, 2001, and that Black armed himself with a gun Durst had hidden. During a struggle, the weapon fired, hitting Black in the face, he said.
Durst testified he did not recall details about dismembering the body, but when pressed by a prosecutor he said he remembered "a nightmare with blood everywhere."
"I remember like I was looking down on something and I was swimming in blood and I kept spitting up and spitting up and I don't know what is real and I don't know what is not real," Durst said.
He said he preferred not to use the term "murder" to describe Black's death.
"I like dying better. Killed implies like I killed him. I did not kill him," Durst said.
"It was self-defense and an accident," he said.
When he learned police had found some of Black's remains, Durst said he fled to New Orleans with five pounds of marijuana and more than $500,000 in cash.
He returned to Galveston and was arrested. He posted bail and fled, and was captured six weeks later in Pennsylvania when he was caught trying to steal the sandwich.
Durst still faces a bail-jumping count for fleeing following his murder charge, and that could carry a sentence of two to 10 years if he is convicted.
Durst's family runs The Durst Organization (search ), a privately held, billion-dollar New York company.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.