One justice system for the rich and another for the poor
By Elizabeth Schulte | November 21, 2003 | Page 2
THE ACQUITTAL of billionaire Robert Durst for a grisly murder in Galveston, Texas, shows more clearly than ever that there is one justice system for the rich, and another for the rest of us.
The sickening details of the case have been splashed across newspapers around the country. Durst had confessed to killing his neighbor, Morris Black, in September 2001--then dismembering the body with a bow saw and dumping it in Galveston Bay. The head is still missing. Durst said that he shot his 71-year-old victim in self-defense.
The New York real-estate heir moved to Galveston in 2000 after he found out that authorities were opening new investigations into the disappearance of his wife, Kathleen, who went missing in 1982 after she told Durst that she was leaving him, and Durst's friend, Susan Berman, who was killed shortly before police were to interview her. Among the clues that pointed to Durst was a "hit list" that he'd drawn up, including the name of his brother Thomas, with "dead, dead" written next to it.
In October 2001, law enforcement tracked Durst down and arrested him. Durst posted bail and skipped town. They found him in Pennsylvania a month later, where he was caught trying to shoplift a Band-Aid, a newspaper and a chicken salad sandwich. Authorities found a stash of four guns and ammunition in his car trunk, as well as $37,000 in $100 bills.
Nevertheless, after a six-week trial, Durst was found not guilty of murdering Black. How? Durst had the best defense that money could buy. His $2 million legal dream team included Mike Ramsey, whose client list includes Ken Lay, the former CEO of the bankrupt energy giant Enron.
Durst's team went through 170 potential jurors before they found the 14 that they felt would give them the verdict they wanted. Durst remains in jail for jumping bail, but he could be released soon because he has already served two years.
"They used to say that you can't be too rich or too thin," his brother Thomas told Britain's Telegraph newspaper. "Now, it's if you have too much money, and you clean up the scene, and you hide the head, you get off."
Durst's relatives are terrified--justly, considering that Durst has a hit list with their names on it. "We're all at risk. The question is, who's next? " added Thomas.
But while the media went to town about the gory details of Durst's case, they missed the bigger, more gruesome story--about Texas "justice." This is a system where a billionaire killer could buy his way out of jail--while countless others aren't so lucky in a state known for sleeping defense lawyers and executing juveniles, the mentally retarded and the mentally ill.
If Durst hadn't been an "eccentric billionaire," the outcome might have been different--even if he could prove his innocence. He might have ended up like Delma Banks, a Black man convicted by an all-white jury based on testimony that prosecutors paid witnesses to give. Banks came within 10 minutes of being the 300th person executed on Texas's death row in the last quarter century before the U.S. Supreme Court granted him a stay in March.
One of Durst's lawyers, Dick DeGuerin, summed up this sick kind of justice with an old Texas saying about why horse thieves are hung, but some killers get off. "No horse ever needed stealing," DeGuerin explained. "But there are people who need killing."