Mark Twain may have swerved into the truth when he wrote, “We have a jury system which is superior to any in the world, and its efficiency is only marred by the difficulty of finding twelve men every day who don’t know anything and can’t read.”
Recapping the events that led, at long last, to the arrest of Robert Durst in Los Angeles recently, his problems with law enforcement began with the disappearance of his wife, Kathleen in New York in 1988. He fled New York when police renewed that investigation some time later, hiding out in Houston. He was also under suspicion for murder of a friend, Susan Berman, who police, only days before, had notified that they wanted to talk about the case of the missing wife.
While hiding in Houston, Durst assumed the name of a woman he once knew, disguised himself as a mute woman, and later admitted to killing his neighbor, Morris Black. Further, he admitted dismembering Black’s body and throwing it in Galveston Bay, claiming he did so with the assumption that the police would not believe his story that Black had found Durst’s gun and that it went off as they struggled for it.
As fiction authors are fond of saying, “You can’t write this stuff,” but as strange and improbable as the defense was, it was the jurors’ rationale for their not-guilty verdict that was most astounding.
“It doesn’t matter if I thought he was guilty or not,” said juror Chris Lovell. “I didn’t want to convict this man on what I thought. I wanted to make a decision on what I knew based on the evidence.”
If Mr. Lovell had the impression that Durst was guilty before the trial started, he would have had the obligation to tell that to the court and be dismissed as a result. So, presumably, that impression came as a result of the evidence presented in the case, yet he found Robert Durst not guilty.
If you give Mr. Lovell the benefit of the doubt based on the quote above, consider his further rationale. “One thing that influenced my decision, and the jury and I discussed this from the very beginning of this trial, the defense told us a story, and they stuck to their guns all the way through,” he went on to say.
So, for Mr. Lovell, as long as the defense sticks to its story, no matter how unbelievable, that’s a reason for an acquittal. The added consideration in this case it, it doesn’t square with what other jurors said.
Durst’s story was too unbelievable to consider, according to juror Eldridge Darby. “Durst had holes in his story. That’s why we had to separate his story out from the facts.” Another juror, Robbie Claris, confirmed Darby’s account. “We took Mr. Durst’s story completely out of the picture. Based on the evidence, it just wasn’t there.”
So, for those two jurors, who also claim to be speaking for others, the defendant’s story was so unbelievable that they didn’t take it into consideration and set him free as a result. As if that wasn’t enough, some jurors found it significant that the victim’s head was never found.
The above was excerpted from Fixing the Engine of Justice: Diagnosis and Repair of Our Jury System.
Scott Williams, “Durst Jurors Speak Out: ‘It just wasn’t there.’” Galvestondailynews.com, November 12, 2003
“Tycoon Not Guilty,” skynews.com, November 12, 2003
“Jurors in the Robert Durst trial talk about the verdict,” abclocal.go.com/ktrk/news, November 12, 2003.