Judge refuses to halt Robert Durst's L.A. murder trial over health concerns
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FILE PHOTO: Real estate heir Robert Durst looks over during his murder trial in Los Angeles, California, U.S., March 10, 2020. Alex Gallardo/Pool via Reuters/File Photo
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By Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A Los Angeles judge on Monday denied a request by defense lawyers seeking to indefinitely halt the high-profile murder trial of elderly New York real estate scion Robert Durst on the grounds he is gravely ill with cancer and other health problems.
Durst, 78, is charged with the December 2000 murder of his long-time confidant, Susan Berman, a writer he is accused of fatally shooting because of what she might have known about the unsolved disappearance and presumed killing of his wife two decades earlier.
Prosecutors have said Durst's 2015 arrest in the Berman case was hastened by his apparent confession to multiple killings in an Emmy award-winning, HBO television documentary series "The Jinx."
Durst's lead attorney, Dick DeGuerin, argued on Monday his client's health has grown "much worse" in the 14 months since the trial was suspended last March due to COVID-19 restrictions imposed shortly after testimony began.
The emergency defense motion for indefinite postponement cited numerous life-threatening medical issues that Durst's lawyers say he faces, including bladder cancer and a recurrence of esophageal cancer.
Deputy District Attorney John Lewin called the defense motion a ploy to make "this trial go away."
Superior Court Judge Mark Windham sided with prosecutors, ruling that a physical disorder does not necessarily impair one's competence to stand trial.
The defense also requested Durst be released on bail and placed under electronic monitoring in a private hospital to obtain necessary medical treatment at his own expense.
"The doctor said he is in need of urgent hospitalization," DeGuerin told the judge. "The question is not whether he can endure the rigors of the trial, the question is whether he can survive at all."
Windham said he would set a future hearing on Durst's medical condition and whether he requires hospitalization.
Durst, who was not present for Monday's proceedings, faces a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted.
Berman, 55, was found slain in her Beverly Hills home a couple of months after police in New York were reported to have reopened an investigation into the fate of Durst's spouse, Kathleen, who was a medical student when she vanished in 1982.
Durst, the multimillionaire grandson of a Manhattan real estate magnate, has been questioned by investigators about his wife but insists he had nothing to do with her disappearance. He was never prosecuted in that probe.
The circumstances surrounding both cases, and Durst's 2003 acquittal in the killing and dismemberment of a neighbor in Texas, where he had been living in the guise of a woman, gained wide attention in "The Jinx."
Durst was arrested on suspicion of Berman's murder in March 2015, one day before the airing of the final episode, in which he seemed to incriminate himself. After being confronted with a key piece of evidence, a microphone captured Durst muttering to himself: "There it is, you're caught," and "What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course."
In ordering Durst to stand trial, the judge said in 2018 that Durst's "cryptic" off-camera remark "operates as a succinct confession" absent an explanation from the defendant.
Defense lawyers said last March that Durst would take the witness stand in his own defense during the trial.
(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Edwina Gibbs)
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