Proceedings in the case of Robert Durst, the eccentric millionaire and accused killer, were postponed again Thursday in New Orleans after three law enforcement witnesses failed to appear for a hearing in local Magistrate Court.
The hearing had been scheduled so Durst, who was ordered held without bail last week, could challenge the legality of his arrest here on counts of illegal weapon and drug possession.
The delay frustrated attorneys on both sides of a courtroom battle that’s prevented Durst from returning to Los Angeles, where he recently was charged with murder in the 2000 shooting death of Susan Berman, his onetime confidante and spokeswoman.
That killing has attracted international attention, fueled in large part by an HBO documentary miniseries that culminated with an alleged confession from Durst. The series, “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst,” explored Durst’s possible role not only in Berman’s killing but also in the 1982 disappearance of his wife in New York and a 2001 killing in Texas that Durst claimed he committed in self-defense.
At Thursday’s hearing, defense attorneys sought to question two FBI agents and a State Police trooper involved in Durst’s March 14 arrest at the JW Marriott hotel on Canal Street, but none of them showed up for court.
The investigators will be asked to explain to Magistrate Judge Harry Cantrell why they should not be held in contempt of court for disregarding the subpoenas they received this week.
Cantrell scheduled Durst’s next court appearance for April 9.
“What I’m afraid is going on is a game of hide the ball,” said Dick DeGuerin, a Houston attorney who represents Durst. “We want our day in court.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Duane Evans told Cantrell that the agents had not ignored the subpoenas but did not appear because Durst’s attorneys failed to follow proper protocol for issuing subpoenas to Justice Department employees or a state trooper who is part of a federal task force. He said a local attorney for the FBI had not been served with a copy of the subpoena — a claim disputed by Durst attorney Billy Gibbens.
“We’re not saying we’re not going to honor the subpoena,” Evans told the judge. “We needed more time.”
Assistant District Attorney Mark Burton had requested a delay of Thursday’s hearing, but Cantrell ordered it to proceed.
The result was an odd courtroom standoff. Burton repeatedly challenged DeGuerin to call his witnesses, even after it became obvious the agents were not present.
Burton declined to call any witnesses of his own, saying the arrest warrant for Durst should be sufficient to establish probable cause for his arrest.
Federal and state prosecutors also accused Durst’s attorneys of filing last-minute motions.
Evans acknowledged the law doesn’t require a certain amount of time between the service of a subpoena and a court appearance. But he added, “We should be afforded more than 24 to 36 hours to ... go through the documents that were submitted by the defense.”
DeGuerin shot back: “It doesn’t take any time to prepare to tell the truth.”
DeGuerin has argued that Durst’s arrest was improper because authorities did not obtain a search warrant before entering his hotel room and taking an “inventory” of his belongings. It was only after the FBI found 5 ounces of marijuana and a handgun in his possession that Los Angeles police were encouraged to obtain a formal search warrant, he said.
Agents searching Durst’s luggage also said they found thousands of dollars in cash and a flesh-colored mask, suggesting the 71-year-old had packed for life on the lam.
Durst was booked with counts of possessing a firearm as a convicted felon and possessing a firearm with a controlled, dangerous substance.
District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro still has not decided whether to pursue criminal charges against Durst. Should prosecutors charge Durst in the next week, he would lose his right to a preliminary hearing.
Legal experts have speculated about whether local prosecutors are deliberately dragging their feet to allow authorities in Los Angeles more time to build their murder case. Durst is not fighting extradition to California, and his attorneys have said they are eager to challenge a case there they contend is based mainly on the HBO miniseries and “innuendo.”
“I think the state was needlessly sloppy here today,” said Craig Mordock, a former prosecutor who has followed the proceedings closely. “There has to be some reason” the DA’s office has not yet filed charges against Durst, he said.
Christopher Bowman, a spokesman for Cannizzaro, has declined to comment on the case.
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.