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People v. Durst

California Court of Appeals, Third District, Sacramento

March 28, 2014

THE PEOPLE, Plaintiff and Respondent,
ROBERT DURST, Defendant and Appellant.


APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of Sacramento County No. 10F05210, Marjorie Koller, Judge.

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Stephen M. Hinkle, under appointment by the Court of Appeal, for Defendant and Appellant.

Kamala D. Harris, Attorney General, Dane R. Gillette, Chief Assistant Attorney General, Michael P. Farrell, Assistant Attorney General, Catherine Chatman and Jeffrey Grant, Deputy Attorneys General, for Plaintiff and Respondent.



Defendant Robert Durst lit a candle and opened a gas valve in an empty house, which caused the house to explode when firefighters opened the front door. Convicted of arson and other crimes with enhancements for injuring the firefighters and sentenced to 17 years in state prison, defendant appeals.

On appeal, defendant contends the trial court erred by: (1) denying his motion to suppress his confession as involuntary, (2) excluding his expert testimony on false confessions, and (3) imposing booking and attorney fees without a jury determining his ability to pay and the actual costs to the county. Each contention is without merit.

Defendant forfeits his contention on appeal that his confession was involuntary because he fails to acknowledge the facts as found by the trial court in the suppression hearing, and, in any event, the contention is without merit because the evidence produced at the suppression hearing supports the trial court’s determination that defendant was not in custody when he was first interviewed and admitted his involvement in the crime.

As to the contention that the trial court improperly excluded his proffered expert testimony on false confessions, the trial court properly exercised its discretion in excluding the evidence because there was minimal evidence indicating a false confession and overwhelming evidence that corroborated the confession.

The contentions concerning the booking and attorney fees are without merit because defendant did not object to those fees in the trial court. Also, defendant was not entitled to a jury trial on his ability to pay and the actual costs to the county.

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Defendant lived in a house in Sacramento with his wife and his wife’s two daughters. Next door was a rental house belonging to Christopher Liu. Defendant did not like Liu because of a dispute over payment for work defendant did for Liu on the rental. Defendant threatened that there would be consequences if Liu did not pay what defendant believed Liu owed him.

Late on the night of July 4, 2010, defendant was seen sitting on his front porch smoking a cigarette and drinking beer. He was again seen sitting on his front porch in the early morning hours of July 5, 2010. A strong smell of gas was emanating from Liu’s rental property, which was empty at the time. The gas meter was spinning rapidly. A neighbor mentioned the smell to defendant, who said that he would look into it. The neighbor also saw a glowing light through the window in the rental house.

Later in the morning, workers arrived to do some work on the rental house. They also smelled gas and noticed the gas meter spinning rapidly. A leasing agent arrived at the property, made the same observations, and called 911.

Firefighters arrived and turned off the gas. When they forced open the front door to ventilate the house, the house exploded. Three firefighters were severely injured in the blast, while another sustained less serious injuries.

A candle with candy sprinkles in it, which had been in defendant’s house, was found in the rental house and was identified as the source of ignition. Defendant’s stepdaughter and her friend had put candy sprinkles in some candles. The gas valve for the stove in the rental house had been left open.

Two weeks after the explosion, defendant was interviewed by detectives. He admitted that he had stolen items from the rental house, including copper, a water heater, and a ceiling fan. After several hours of questioning, defendant admitted that he took the candle to the rental house, lit it, opened the gas valve for the stove, and left the house. Defendant was allowed to leave the police station in a taxi, but shortly after that he was arrested and booked.

The next day, at the jail, defendant again admitted his role in the house explosion.

A jury convicted defendant of arson causing great bodily injury (Pen. Code, § 451, subd. (a)), possession of a firearm by a convicted felon (Pen. Code, former § 12021, subd. (a)(1)), two counts of second degree burglary (Pen. Code, § 459), and two counts of receiving stolen property (Pen. Code, § 496). The jury also found true allegations appended to the arson count that

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defendant caused great bodily injury to a firefighter (Pen. Code, § 451.1, subd. (a)(2)), caused great bodily injury to more than one person (Pen. Code, § 451.1, subd. (a)(3)), and used a device to accelerate the fire or delay ignition (Pen. Code, § 451.1, subd. (a)(5)).

The trial court sentenced defendant to an aggregate determinate term of 17 years in state prison.



Voluntariness of Confession

At the preliminary hearing, defendant made a motion to suppress his confession made on July 20 at the jail. He argued that, even though the confession was made after he was advised of his Miranda[1] rights, it was involuntary because that confession was caused by defendant’s confession the day before, on July 19, in an interview during which he was not advised of his Miranda rights. According to defendant, the detectives who interviewed him engaged in a deliberate two-step process of (1) interviewing him before advising him of his Miranda rights so that they could get him to confess, then (2) arresting him and having him repeat the confession. The trial court, Judge Greta Curtis Fall presiding, denied the motion to suppress. Before trial, defendant renewed the motion, which was denied by Judge Marjorie Koller. Specifically, the court concluded defendant was not in custody during the July 19 interview and that the July 20 confession was voluntary. It therefore allowed the prosecution to introduce the July 20 confession to the jury. The defense decided to introduce the July 19 confession to try to establish that the confessions were false confessions.

We conclude that, because defendant’s opening brief fails to state the facts of the questioning in the light most favorable to the ruling, he forfeited the contention that the July 20 confession was involuntary. We also conclude that, even if the contention had not been forfeited, we would find there was no Miranda ...

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