(WARNING: Contains spoilers)
It’s not every day you get a room full of jurors on a gruesome slaying and dismemberment trial audibly laughing in unison, but that is exactly what happened during Robert Durst’s murder trial in Galveston, Texas. Durst takes the stand as the first witness for the defense — a highly unusual tactic — and goes on to explain matter-of-factly how he decided to adapt the guise of woman. “I went to Walmart and bought a woman’s white blouse,” he says. The courtroom, and the viewers, are in stitches.
This is the same motley crew that just heard from the prosecution — all rather serious stuff, dark and macabre, complete with gory pictures and graphic descriptions of how Durst hacked away for hours at the body of Morris Black, his dead neighbor, with a variety of saws. Yet, amid the gore, there are moments of pure comedy. It all seems so, so wrong and yet they (and we) are riveted. Surely this narrative seems better suited to a scripted Hollywood movie than an actual trial, Durst seeming more caricature than real person.
As we get deeper into HBO’s docu-series “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst,” a strange thing is happening to me: As much as Durst should be reviled — and on many levels is — and his actions and related accusations should never be taken lightly — we are talking about possible multiple murders after all — Durst can be endearing. A man I should despise is very hard to.
“The Gangster’s Daughter,” the third episode of the six-part series, focuses on Durst’s friendship with Susan Berman and her subsequent execution-style murder. It recounts his first wife, Kathie Durst’s disappearance, and the inquiry into it. Years later, never charged, Durst becomes aware that officials are reopening the case and decides to flee to Texas. Episode four, “The State of Texas Vs. Robert Durst” highlights his arrest, trial and defense for dismembering his neighbor.
Throughout, Durst is caught somewhere between acting like the rebellious teenager and the curmudgeon. He loves to annoy his father (late real estate magnate Seymour Durst) so always calls collect. He steals a $6 sandwich for sport. He sits across from Jarecki throughout these episodes being interviewed, looking small and frail with his assortment of twitches and nods, clad in white sneakers and a Mr. Rogers sweater appearing so very … harmless.
When Jarecki asks him about what his plans were when he posted $250,000 bail in Galveston, Durst, incredulous that the state would offer an accused murderer bail, tells him, “You can’t give someone charged with murder bail because they’re going to run away, of course. Goodbye, $250,000. Goodbye, jail. I’m out.” It’s this teen equivalent of “See ya, wouldn’t wanna be ya,” this playfulness and unexpected frankness, that makes one feel sympathy for Durst.
When recounting his time behind bars, Durst points out that the other inmates – mostly working-class and uneducated – showed him tremendous respect giving him the name, “Mr. Bob,” a name more suited for a David Lynch character than a prison moniker. He has a poor little rich boy moment when he explains to the camera that the respect was mutual because whatever they accomplished, they did on their own. (Cue playing of the world’s tiniest bow saw.)
As the trial in Texas proceeds we see why that state did what California and New York couldn’t, because you don’t mess with Texas. Even so, Durst seems to roll ten deep with his legal posse, each commenting on their part in his defense strategy. All are aware they have a mess on their hands. Michael Ramsey, one of his counsel team, puts it perfectly, “We got a man cut up in 20 different pieces and they’re expecting us to win this case.”
But Durst’s team manages to craft a narrative that seems to resonate with the jurors. Speaking in the third person about his self-imposed exile to Texas, he says: “It seemed to me the big problem was Robert Durst, so I wanted to not be Robert Durst.” Who can’t relate to wanting to disappear once in a while?
Every story needs a villain and if Durst is to avoid being ours, the defense team needed a substitute: Enter Jeanine Pirro. Not since Eve put apple in hand, has a women caused so much destruction, Durst’s defense wants the jury to believe.
Black is painted as a cantankerous and threatening figure. The prosecutors come off as bumbling; when two DAs try to reenact the logistics of the scuffle while Durst is on the stand asking him if their mock demonstration is accurate, Durst replies he can’t answer because “the two of you look like spaghetti.”
The crux of his defense is that he and Black were friends but when Black gets an eviction notice while at Bob’s house he becomes volatile and shoots the paper. Durst makes it clear the friendship is over but days later, finds Black in his home with a gun. Durst points out that Texas is a different animal when it comes to self-defense. “There’s little you can’t do,” he says. “Obviously you are not supposed to kill them,” Durst adds, but says that he accidentally shot Black in the ensuing scuffle.
“I didn’t murder my friend,” he says, “but I did dismember him.”
One juror explains that when “Mr. Durst was on the stand, I felt he was talking from the heart.” After five days of deliberation, Durst is acquitted.
At the close of the episode though, however, Durst leaves us with an ominous koan. Durst tells Jarecki he was told to tell the truth and nothing but the truth, but to tell the “whole” truth was not necessary. He was instructed to answer questions honestly, but that omission was acceptable. Jarecki tells him they can go on break, but Durst doesn’t realize he is still mic’d and begins talking to himself rehearsing, repeating this phrase three times in secession, “I did not knowingly and purposefully lie.”
When alerted by his counsel he is still mic’d and can be heard, the show ends with him saying, “Nobody tells the whole truth.”
Oh, Mr. Bob.