Editor: Spoilers, if real-life events can be “spoiled,” abound.
HBO aired the final installment of its gripping six-part documentary series “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst.” The show tracks Durst, an eccentric and troubled scion of one of New York’s wealthiest families, discussing the disappearance of his first wife Kathleen, the murder in Los Angeles of his best friend Susan Berman, and the murder and dismemberment of his neighbor Morris Black in Galveston, Texas.
Durst had already admitted to the latter killing, but successfully argued self-defense. Money can’t buy love, but it can buy incredibly effective defense teams. Anyway, just before the final episode aired, the FBI arrested Durst in New Orleans in connection with a recently issued warrant in California for charges related to Berman’s death. Reportedly checked into a hotel under a pseudonym, Durst was deemed enough of a flight risk to be arrested.
Worries about flight risk might have had something to do with the final, breathtaking episode. In the penultimate episode, Berman’s stepson Sareb Kaufman found an incriminating letter and envelope addressed by Durst that strongly matched a note sent to Beverly Hills Police notifying them that a “cadaver” could be found at Berman’s address. In the final episode, a handwriting expert evaluates the letter and envelope and determines they’re written by the same individual.
For part of the episode, Durst avoids a final interview, eventually agreeing to one after he needs the documentary filmmakers’ help getting out of some trespassing charges. Durst was accused of violating the terms of a restraining order some members of his family had put against him (he was acquitted of these charges a few months ago, it turns out).
So he sits down for a second interview with the filmmakers. They show him the evidence. Always awkward in his interviews, transitioning between first person, second person and third person, and blinking oddly, he seems even more uncomfortable upon realization that this incriminating document exists. He makes odd burping sounds, for instance. But he denies any connection to Berman’s death.
Presumably not realizing his microphone is still recording, he walks into the bathroom and says, as the filmmakers present it, “There it is. You’re caught. You’re right, of course. But, you can’t imagine. Arrest him. I don’t know what’s in the house. Oh, I want this. What a disaster. He was right. I was wrong. And the burping. I’m having difficulty with the question. What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.”
Which is, you know, not what you want to say if you wish to keep getting away with killing people. The seeming admission, combined with the arrest, led people to cheer that justice would finally be served with Durst.
Take Jeanine Pirro, who actually tried to nab Durst by reopening an investigation into his wife’s disappearance when she was the District Attorney in Westchester County, New York:
— Jeanine Pirro (@JudgeJeanine) March 16, 2015
Except I’m not entirely sure this is true. By a long shot.
It’s one thing to convince viewers of a brilliantly edited documentary of someone’s guilt and entirely another to successfully convince a jury. And just as a reminder, we are talking about a dude who basically got away with the murder and dismemberment (technically he served a bit of time for the dismemberment) of his neighbor. After he confessed to said crime. Don’t forget that when he was arrested on that murder charge, everyone assumed he’d finally be held accountable for killing someone. “A slam dunk,” they all said. One of the more gripping scenes in the series is when the detective on that case, Cody Cazalas, wept and said he’d let God down by failing in getting a conviction in that case. Durst more or less skated.
And if he’s still got the money to hire the best defense, couldn’t they easily shoot holes through whatever new information this documentary found? I mean, of all the expert witness testimony out there, that of forensic handwriting analysis has got to be some of the easiest to challenge. Besides, investigators had already done handwriting analysis on the “cadaver” note and found it inconclusive. Any attorney worth his salt should be able to find any number of ways to either keep the notes out of court of introduce some level of doubt about what they mean.
And as for the alleged admission of guilt, I’m not entirely sure that would hold up in court either. For one thing, attorneys might be able to keep the admission out of court on the grounds that Durst had an expectation of privacy at the time he made the comments. Or that the tape had been somehow tampered with. For another, any number of comments he made during the documentary could seem to be self-incriminating outside of their context. He spoke in the third person and discussed himself as if he were guilty, for instance. In that sense, saying “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course,” could be argued to mean he was worried about how he’d be portrayed.
Perhaps the FBI and multi-jurisdictional police forces have more on Durst than just these items, but if he could skate before on more incriminating charges, I wouldn’t put it against him doing so again here.
One final note: The New York Times says in one story, “More than two years passed after the interview before the filmmakers found the audio,” and in another, “It was taped nearly three years ago but accidentally discovered just nine months ago.”
The documentary says Durst only agreed to a second interview with them after he needed their help getting out of trespassing charges. He was arrested on those charges in August 2013, which is only a year and a half ago. Either way, reporters should explain why they’re claiming the incendiary audio tape was only found “more than two years” after it was taped. Much of ‘The Jinx’ suggests that Durst was able to get away with murder in part because people who knew details that investigators needed weren’t forthright with those details. The producers of ‘The Jinx’ have made amazingly entertaining television, but they’ll certainly have some questions to answer from interested viewers about what they did with the information they had, and when.