By Alex Dobuzinskis
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Wealthy Manhattan real estate scion Robert Durst, whose ties to several slayings were chronicled in the chilling HBO documentary "The Jinx," pleaded not guilty on Monday to murder in the fatal shooting of a close friend 16 years ago in Los Angeles.
His arraignment came seven months after Durst, 73, pleaded guilty to a federal weapons charge in New Orleans and was sentenced to seven years in prison, paving the way for him to face prosecution in the death of Susan Berman, a writer and longtime confidante.
Durst previously was tried and acquitted for the 2003 killing and dismemberment of a Texas neighbor and was under investigation in the 1982 disappearance and presumed slaying of his wife, Kathleen, in New York.
He stands accused in Los Angeles Superior Court of fatally shooting Berman on Dec. 23, 2000, because of what she knew about the demise of his wife two decades earlier.
Durst, who according to his attorneys underwent spinal surgery in Louisiana, wore a neck brace and was seated in a wheelchair for his arraignment, during which prosecutors said they would decline to seek the death penalty if he were convicted.
One of Durst's lawyers formally entered a not-guilty plea on his behalf to a single count of first-degree murder. But Durst himself professed his innocence to the court moments later.
Asked by Judge Mark Windham whether he could understand the proceedings when defense attorneys complained their client was having trouble hearing, Durst replied, "I hear fine now."
He then added in a slightly quavering voice: "I do want to say here and now, though, I am not guilty. I did not kill Susan Berman."
Berman, a friend of Durst from graduate school who acted as his spokeswoman after his spouse vanished, may have played a role in facilitating a public alibi for her disappearance, according to various media accounts.
Berman was found slain in her Los Angeles home, reportedly shot execution style, after police in New York had reopened their investigation into Durst's wife's fate. Durst was questioned but never charged in that probe.
He was convicted in 2004 of jumping bail and carrying a weapon across state lines while fleeing authorities in Texas in connection with the dismemberment case.
His guilty plea in April 2016 to a federal charge of being a felon in possession of a firearm stems from his arrest in March 2015 in New Orleans, where a search of his hotel room turned up a handgun, $42,000 in cash and a latex mask.
That arrest came a day after he was charged in Los Angeles with Berman's murder and coincided with the series finale of "The Jinx." In that last episode, Durst was presented with evidence that his handwriting appeared to match that of Berman's likely killer. His voice was captured on a microphone after the interview, muttering off-camera: "What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course."
Although Durst has long been estranged from his New York family and their significant real estate holdings, prosecutors have put his estimated net worth at some $100 million.
(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Chris Reese, Jonathan Oatis and Bill Rigby)