The case of Robert Durst, the accused killer and real estate heir whose legal troubles have become a national sensation, remained stalled in New Orleans on Tuesday as a magistrate judge granted local prosecutors several days to prepare for a bail hearing that has indefinitely delayed Durst’s return to Los Angeles.
A day after Durst, 71, waived extradition to California, agreeing to answer to murder charges there, Magistrate Judge Harry Cantrell set a hearing for Monday to determine whether he should be granted bail on state counts stemming from a handgun and marijuana that authorities found in his hotel room Saturday.
The delay has kept the national media spotlight trained on the Orleans Parish Criminal District Courthouse and raised questions about how long Durst, perhaps the highest-profile criminal defendant in the country at the moment, could be held in the city’s notoriously troubled jail.
Officials with the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office, citing unspecified “medical reasons,” said Durst would be transferred to a so-called special needs facility at the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, about an hour’s drive from New Orleans. The facility recently was renovated to accommodate severely mentally ill inmates awaiting trial in New Orleans after a federal judge ruled that Orleans Parish Prison was an unsuitable — and perhaps dangerous — setting for such inmates.
It was not clear what prompted the Sheriff’s Office to decide to transfer Durst, who has been said to suffer from Asperger’s syndrome. The Sheriff’s Office has come under increasing scrutiny regarding its medical and mental health treatment of inmates amid a court-ordered plan for jail reform that has been hobbled by a lack of funding and staffing.
Cantrell ordered Durst to remain at OPP, where Durst has been held in protective custody, after defense attorneys raised concerns about maintaining access to their client before Monday’s hearing. But the state 4th Circuit Court of Appeal quickly overturned that decision, ruling that “it is within the sole discretion of the sheriff to determine where to house inmates in need of mental health treatment.”
Cantrell, addressing another concern raised by Durst’s attorneys, signed an order Tuesday authorizing Durst to receive his pain medication, including hydrocodone, “for the duration of his confinement” in New Orleans.
For a second straight day, Durst appeared in an orange jumpsuit in Magistrate Court on Tuesday as his attorneys sought to expedite his return to Los Angeles, where he faces murder charges in the 2000 killing of writer Susan Berman, his onetime confidante. His latest court appearance was triggered by two new counts — possession of a firearm with a controlled dangerous substance and being a felon in possession of a firearm — filed by State Police late Monday.
Authorities took Durst into custody Saturday evening at the JW Marriott Hotel on Canal Street and found a .38-caliber revolver and about five ounces of marijuana in his room.
Durst, who jumped bail in 2001 after being charged with the murder of a neighbor in Galveston, Texas, pleaded guilty in 2004 to interstate transportation of a firearm and possession of a firearm by a fugitive from justice — convictions that made it illegal for him to carry a firearm.
Durst, who claimed he killed the neighbor, Morris Black, in self-defense, was acquitted of murder in that case, even after he dismembered the man and dumped his remains in Galveston Bay.
The Associated Press reported Tuesday that police in Houston were searching Durst’s “fashionable” home there.
Despite the high-profile charges pending in California, Orleans Parish Assistant District Attorney Mark Burton said a hearing was needed “to determine whether bail should be denied because of flight risk and/or dangers (Durst poses) to anybody else in the community.”
Defense attorney Dick DeGuerin asked Cantrell to do whatever he could to speed up the process.
Cantrell offered to hold the hearing Friday morning, but Burton said he needed more time to collect out-of-state records relating to Durst’s criminal record.
It remained unclear when Durst might return to Los Angeles. David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor, said the order in which cases proceed could be affected by whether Durst decides to waive his right to a speedy trial in Louisiana. He said prosecutors in Los Angeles could benefit from Durst being convicted in New Orleans, particularly if they decide to seek the death penalty in Berman’s killing.
“You have two states competing with each other for his prosecution,” Weinstein said. “You would think that, if logic prevailed, the DA in California and the parish prosecutor in New Orleans would say, ‘Let’s come up with a decision as to how we’re going to do this.’ ”
The suspicions long surrounding Durst have been amplified this year by an HBO documentary miniseries that explored his possible role in three killings, including that of Berman, a journalist and author killed execution-style at her Los Angeles home in December 2000. In the final episode of the series, aired Sunday, Durst made what some observers described as a confession while muttering to himself off-camera. Still wearing a microphone as he apparently went to the bathroom, Durst said, “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.”
The documentary also presented new evidence based on Durst’s handwriting that suggested he authored a letter to the police alerting them to Berman’s killing.
DeGuerin said Tuesday that he believes the murder warrant, issued last week in Los Angeles, was “based on a television show, not on actual facts.” He maintained his client’s innocence, insisting Durst doesn’t know who killed Berman.
“We want to contest the basis for his arrest because I think it’s not based on facts,” DeGuerin told reporters in front of the courthouse. “It’s based on ratings.”
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.