HBO six-part documentary series The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst is an investigation into a scion of one of Manhattan’s wealthiest real-estate fortunes who may or may not have gotten away with at least two different, elaborate, sensationalistic murders. The Jinx is "Serial" in 3-D, but Robert Durst is the anti–Adnan Syed: Durst walks — more than once. Filmmaker Andrew Jarecki examines evidence going back to the 1980s to look at how, why, and whether this defendant is either guilty and very fortunate or innocent and, as per the series’ tagline, merely “The Unluckiest Man in the World.”
Episode four begins back in Galveston, where Durst was tried for the sensationalistic crime of murdering his neighbor, a loner no one liked named Morris Black.
1. The state charged Durst with murdering Black, not dismembering him, which is unfortunate, because he definitely did get stoned and drunk, cut the fellow up with saws and axes (!), put the various body parts in trash bags and cheap Walmart suitcases, and throw them in the bay.
How did Durst plead in response to the charge of murder? “Not guilty.”
“I was Mr. Bob in prison,” recounts Durst now, with something like fondness in his voice. He seems to have enjoyed aspects of the behind-bars experience. Why, then, did he jump bail? Ah, well. If you had so much money that $250,000 could fall out of your pants and you wouldn’t miss it, wouldn’t you jump bail, too?
Regardless, as you may recall from episode one, Durst was caught, dragged back to Texas, and tried. The national media descended on Galveston, showing all the tact and discretion of a rabid dog.
Prosecutors from New York to Los Angeles followed the proceedings with special interest since Durst was a suspect in two unsolved cases, but they assumed that Durst had no chance. As one DA puts it, “Durst dismembered the body and threw the pieces in the river. This would seem to be a home run for the prosecution.
How on earth did Durst go free? At last, we learn.
2. Durst’s high-paid, high-profile criminal defense attorneys successfully humanized Durst in part by demonizing Jeanine Pirro. Then they successfully argued that Durst killed Black — his friend — in self-defense.
“I thought he was gonna make a pretty good defendant,” remembers one of Durst’s many well-dressed and extremely smooth attorneys. He turned out to be right. The defense opened its case and called Durst as its first witness. Durst testified that he was astonished to hear, via the tabloids, that Westchester County was reopening the case of Kathie’s disappearance. As Durst put it, “It seemed like the problem was Robert Durst. I wanted to not be Robert Durst.” That’s why he went to Galveston. “I intended to disguise myself and never use the name ‘Robert Durst’ again.”
In other words, as his lawyer said, “Jeanine Pirro ran him out of New York — a politically ambitious woman who wanted to further her own ambition at Bob Durst’s expense, with no evidence.”
“It was very easy for us to make her the enemy,” admits another one of the attorneys, the only one of the team who seems at all abashed by the strategy or the outcome. “We took liberties.”
They took liberties, indeed. The lawyers redirected the blame toward Pirro. One of them stated to the jury, “If Ms. Pirro had kept her mouth shut, none of this would have happened.”
Pirro’s reaction is a priceless, if predictable, “Are you kidding?”
But the jurors found the argument persuasive. One says, “I think that [Pirro] was really out to get him. He wanted to get away, and I can’t fault him for that.”
In Durst’s version of the story, told from the stand, he felt so victimized by Pirro that he fled to Galveston to start fresh. Though he disguised himself as a mute woman, once he became friends with his “cantankerous, grumpy” neighbor Morris Black, he dropped the pretense. Black, he said, understood.
Unfortunately, Black was also “unpredictable and violent.” After he fired a shot in Durst’s apartment, Durst told him to get out and stay out. Then Durst came home one day and found that Black had broken in and was sitting at Durst’s kitchen table with a gun.
“[In Texas,] we do have some people who need killing,” says one of the defense attorneys, to give us some context for what happened next. The state also has very lax rules about what you can do to a person found armed and trespassing in your home. Durst’s lawyers framed this case as a cross between Crime and Punishment — what’s really the harm if you kill an eccentric, mean old loner who no one likes? — and “Stand Your Ground.”
One defense attorney asks the jury: If you were in Durst’s position and saw an angry and unstable man had broken into your home and has a gun, “would you be reasonable in coming to your own defense?”
“We always had to keep Bob on message,” remembers one of the lawyers. “‘You were afraid of him. You were afraid of what he would do, and you knew you had to get your hands on that gun.’” In other words, Durst team got him to sing three bars of, “We both reached for the gun.”
“The gun went off.” “‘Bam!’ Like that?” “Like that.”
“The man cannot tell the truth,” said Sargeant Cody Cazalas, who testified for the prosecution. “I never found one person that could say they saw [Black and Durst] together … Morris would go to the library every day and use the internet for free.” Maybe he found out who Durst was and tried to blackmail him and that’s what got him killed. (That would be in line with what people suspect happened to Susan, as we learned last week in episode three.)
The DAs insisted Durst was lying. The neighbor testified she heard two shots. Durst shot at Morris Black and missed. Then he beat Black to the ground and executed him. “You don’t cut somebody up … and dump him in the bay when you acted in self-defense. You don’t butcher somebody … because there was an accident.”
But, as Durst recounted it, that is indeed what happened.
3. “I did not kill my best friend. I did dismember him.” —Robert Durs
“Black was shot in the face with my gun in my apartment,” said Durst on the stand. If he called the police, they would immediately figure out who he was and tie him to the whole mishegas in New York. “I just didn’t think I would be believed.”
He says now, “I was scared to death. I had to get this corpse out of my apartment.”
It was much too heavy to pick up and carry. “I thought about putting it in a sleeping bag and dragging it out, but good God, that’s ridiculous.”
He admits to the dismemberment. “Morris had tools. Saws, a giant ax. I don’t think he had a bow saw. Anyway, I went and bought a bow saw and a bunch of garbage bags. I’m sure I got more stoned and more drunk and dismembered the corpse, some with the axe but primarily with the bow saw and I think with another saw Morris Black had.”
One of defense attorneys recounts that they were worried that the way Durst describes things, without a lot of emotion, would lead jury members to believe he was a cold-blooded killer. Being that we, the viewers, are a bit like jury members now, and that is how many of us feel, I can sympathize with this fear. They coached him instead to “not remember” as many details as possible.
The members of the jury bought it. Or, at least, they did not believe the state managed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Durst wasn’t acting in self-defense. They returned a verdict of not guilty. It was not a popular verdict, a juror admits. “But when Mr. Durst was on the stand, I felt he was talking from the heart.”
Speaking now with Jarecki, Durst says that his lawyers sat with him before the trial and parsed the oath. They told him he could leave things out. Try it.
Jarecki suggests he and Durst take a break; Durst agrees and Jarecki walks away. Durst remains in his chair, miked up and on camera. He whispers to himself, twice, “I did not knowingly, purposefully lie.” He does it again, adding the word “intentionally.” He is, we realize, practicing for when the cameras come back on. He goes on to whisper, “I did make mistakes.”
One of his lawyers comes over and tells him the mike is hot, that everyone could hear what he was saying. Durst doesn’t care. “I did not tell the whole truth,” says Durst dismissively, to his lawyer, to us. “Nobody tells the whole truth.”
Over the last two episodes, we will see how much of the whole truth about these sordid episodes Jarecki himself manages to reveal.