“Iwouldn’t ask him to escort my daughter to her senior prom,” explained one of the jurors who in mid-November acquitted Robert Durst of murdering his quarrelsome neighbor, Morris Black. Durst, of course, is the eccentric heir to a billion-dollar real estate business, a man who, according to the New York Times, spent time “living on the cheap disguised as a woman” while running from the law. The trail of weirdness that stretches behind him like the tail of a particularly bright comet includes “the unsolved disappearance of his first wife; the unsolved murder of his confidante in Los Angeles; a secret second marriage; a fatal shooting and a grisly cover-up; a nationwide manhunt that ended with a shoplifting arrest.”
The case itself was not a complicated one in the annals of criminal law. Durst maintained that Black pointed a gun at him, that he tried to defend himself but the gun went off and Black was shot in the head and died. Since Black’s head has never been found, jurors were deprived of the forensic clues that might have settled exactly how the death occurred. This made the case against Durst somewhat circumstantial, always confounding to prosecutors in their attempt to prove murder rather than accident. There were no witnesses, the evidence was ambiguous, and, most damning of all, the victim was by all accounts an odd, edgy man with no immediate relatives to weep for him in the front row of the gallery.
It must be said that Durst, too, is an odd, unsympathetic character–estranged from his family and linked with one too many wives or acquaintances gone unaccountably missing or dead. No one showed up to weep for him in the courtroom either. Indeed, this case attracted attention not just because the Durst family is as rich and well positioned in the New York social scene as Sunny and Claus von Bülow before them but because Durst actually confessed to dismembering Black’s body. Panic drove him to it, Durst says, and panic advised him further to chuck the pieces and parts into the nearest body of water, where most of them were found bobbing sometime later. His lawyer is on record reflecting that “Bob was horrified at some of the things he did.”
At this complicated media-hysterical and media-historical moment, there are lots of people looking to the Kobe Bryant case or the Washington sniper trials for elucidation of the American justice system’s shortcomings. For my money, I think the Durst trial is a fascinating test of the principles of neutrality to which all of us aspire. Thus, I will pass over the cheap ‘n’ easy complaints that if Durst had been poor… If Durst had been black… If Durst had been poor and black…
In other words, I will pass right over the question of whether Durst is or isn’t the white O.J. and move straight to the question of truth. Our system of justice is heavily inflected by rules of evidence that came of age during a time when it was hoped that the scientific method could be applied to the social sciences, and that outcomes, whether decided by judges or juries, could be relied upon as accurate measures of penalty and consequence. But the death of Morris Black is a bit like one of those events that bedevil sciences of all sorts. You’re pretty sure that an unknown virus is one part of a vector of causes in the outbreak of a mysterious medical syndrome, but no one can prove it. There’s a certain pattern of clues, but no smoking gun. The easy response is to want to throw the Robert Dursts of the world behind bars just to be on the safe side, to make overgeneralizations that may or may not be true–as long as there’s any, even a low, chance of connection. Jail! Quarantine! Shoot first, ask questions later!
In a world of deadly risk, however, we must remember three things. First, that overreaction can be just as disastrous as under-reaction. Second, that when science does not provide satisfactory explanations for insidious phenomena we do not generally contemplate throwing out the scientific method as easily as I sometimes sense we are willing to dispense with due process when it does not immediately deliver us a head. Third, that chronology always has a silent hand in the determination of what we call truth: We all understand that when we panic, the logic of now foreshortens other rationales. But it is perhaps a subtler and more difficult reality that time itself can be controlled by human or technological guile, and thus control the truth. In the Rodney King beating trial, for example, when the police officers’ lawyers were able to freeze the videotape of the blows of the billy clubs to a series of single, still frames, a very different story was told from when the tape was played at normal speed. Similarly, when Durst or his team of lawyers was able to convince jurors that the butchering of Black’s body occurred only after Black was accidentally killed, then the killing itself became dismembered from the dismemberment, which was in turn temporally removed from the definition of murder. To top it all off, chopping up bodies after death is only a misdemeanor in Texas, way below jumping bail and stealing a chicken salad sandwich–the charges for which Durst was most recently arrested–and presumably why prosecutors didn’t even bother charging Durst with defacing a corpse.
Which brings us, fourth and finally, to the question of community standards. “Durst isn’t the only crazy person in Galveston,” shrugged one of the acquitting jurors. It was an interesting summation: the crazy-as-norm measure of behavior, judged by a locality that’s apparently seen it all. Galveston, the juror implied, is a community so filled with crazies that chopping up a neighbor’s body, triple-wrapping the pieces in garbage bags and dropping them into the gulf is just, like, the same old same old. The kind of stuff that gets you disqualified from the senior prom but not sent to the pokey for anything like serious time.
And that, I fear, does bring me back to the deep, hard version of those earlier questions: What tests of our notions of the neutrality of due process would be revealed if Durst had been poor, or black, or perceived as a white O.J., playing the system for everything it’s worth?