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Claus Von Bulow Trials: 1982 & 1985

Claus Von Bulow Trials: 1982 & 1985

Defendant: Claus Von Bulow
Crime Charged: Attempted murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: First trial: John Sheenan and Herold Price Fahringer; second trial: Thomas P. Puccio and John Sheehan
Chief Prosecutors: First trial: Stephen Famiglietti and Susan McGuirl; second trial: Marc DeSisto and Henry Gemma
Judges: First trial: Thomas H. Needham; second trial: Corrine Grande
Places: First trial: Newport, Rhode Island; second trial: Providence, Rhode Island
Dates of Trials: First trial: January 11-March 16, 1982; second trial: April 25-June 10, 1985.
Verdict: First trial: Guilty; second trial: not guilty
Sentence: 20 years imprisonment

SIGNIFICANCE: A study in contrasts, the two trials of Claus Von Bulow provide a unique insight into the excesses and foibles of the super-rich.

For 13 years Claus and Martha "Sunny" Von Bülow had been bulwarks of Rhode Island's blueblood colony, but by 1979 their marriage was over in all but name. Around Christmas of that year Sunny slipped into a coma at their oceanside mansion. Claus dithered over summoning medical attention and only prompt mouth-to-mouth resuscitation revived the ailing woman. Sunny seemed as baffled as everyone else as to the cause. Almost exactly one year later, on December 21, 1980, she again lapsed into a coma and was transferred to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York City, where she remained comatose as of this writing. A family-inspired investigation led to indictments against Von Billow, a Danish-born aristocrat, charging that he had twice attempted to murder Sunny by injecting her with insulin.

Because of its glittering cast, the trial attracted global attention. The courthouse in Newport, Rhode Island, jammed with reporters and TV cameras, reflected this when testimony began February 2, 1982. Prosecutor Stephen Famiglietti argued that with a $14-million inheritance, the house, and a beautiful young mistress all at stake, Von Bülow had every reason to want Sunny dead. Describing the delay in requesting medical help, Famiglietti said: "He generally conducted himself in a manner not consistent with that of an innocent man."

Witness Cites Mysterious Vials

Had it not been for Maria Schrallhammer, Sunny Von Bulow secretary, the prosecution would not have had a case. Making no attempt to conceal her loathing of the defendant, Schrallhammer first outlined the tension that existed between the Von Billow, then told of entering a closet in February 1980 and finding a black bag that contained several prescription vials made out to the accused. This set her thinking. The preceding Thanksgiving she had found similar vials labeled insulin. Schrallhammer, puzzled because no family member had a history of diabetes, had shown the vials to Prince Alexander von Auersperg, Sunny's son by her first marriage, remarking, "Insulin. What for insulin?" There seemed to be no reason for it to be aroundunless, said Famiglietti, Von Billow wanted to murder his wife. (When doctors examined Sunny they found abnormally high amounts of insulin in her system.) Auersperg's subsequent discovery of a hypodermic needle encrusted with insulin in yet another black bag merely strengthened her story.

Dr. George Cahill, a former president of the American Diabetes Association and one of the world's top experts in blood-sugar disorders, told the court that injected insulin was the only possible explanation for Sunny's coma. Cahill testified with the air of a man unused to having his opinions questioned, shrugging off defense counsel Herald Fahringer's suggestions that the high insulin level could have resulted from other means. "No, that is not correct the sugar levels alone would lead me to suspect insulin."

What was supposed to be the defense's trump card turned into a disaster. By her own account, Joy O'Neill was a close friend of Sunny's and had frequently gone to the house in her capacity as exercise coach. O'Neill testified that during one of these visits in 1978, Sunny had recommended that she try a shot of insulin as a means of losing weight, saying it enabled one to eat "sweets and everything." On rebuttal Famiglietti was able to show that O'Neill had never actually visited Sunny during 1978 and that her reputation for truthfulness was less than sterling.

After what had been the longest trial in Rhode Island history, the jury then set a record of its own by taking the longest time ever to reach its verdict, nearly six days. Many were surprised at the delaythe case seemed so open and shutbut on March 16, 1982, Claus Von Billow was found guilty.

Seven weeks later Judge Thomas Needham passed sentence of 20 years imprisonment.

New Trial, New Evidence

Freed on bail, Von Bülow engaged the services of noted Harvard law professor Alan M. Dershowitz to organize his appeal. Under Dershowitz's skilled probing, revelations came to light suggesting the strong likelihood that Sunny's coma was self-induced, as friends cataloged a lifetime of drug and alcohol abuse, interspersed with mammoth food binges, a potentially lethal combination for a known reactive hypoglycemic (someone who suffers from low blood sugar). Even more revealing, Maria Schrallhammer's memory was seriously flawed. Dershowitz found some notes made at the time by family attorney Richard Kuh, which unveiled grave inconsistencies in her various statements to police. These and other discrepancies convinced the Rhode Island Supreme Court, on April 27, 1984, to reverse the convictions and order a new trial.

Two days short of a year later it began. Apart from the counsel-Marc DeSisto had taken over as chief prosecutorthe state's case was essentially unchanged. But this time the defense team mounted a far more vigorous campaign. They were led by Thomas Puccio, fresh from his success as a prosecutor in the ABSCAM trials (see separate entry), and now in private practice. He went after Schrallhammer on the vials. "The first time you spoke to Mr. Kuh you didn't tell him about the insulin. Is that correct?"

"That could be. That could very well be, since I was not concerned so much about the insulin."

In fact, Puccio established that Schrallhammer had not mentioned insulin to anyone, not until hearing that doctors had found insulin in Sunny's system. Turning to the vials found at Thanksgiving, Puccio extracted a grudging admission from the witness that she had no idea what they contained because, as she had told Kuh at the time, the labels had been scraped off. It was a telling blow.

Alexander von Auersperg, locator of the insulin-encrusted needle, also came under pressure. Puccio focused on a family meeting held shortly after that discovery. "One of the thing's you discussed at that meeting was a desire on the part of some of the people present to pay your stepfather some money to have him renounce any interest in your mother's estate. Isn't that right?"

Again Kuh's contemporaneous notes gave the witness no escape. He sheepishly nodded, "That's correct," virtually admitting the existence of a family plot to usurp Von Bilow.

Blood-sugar expert, Dr. George Cahill, also was forced to recant some of his former testimony. In a three-hour grilling Cahill now admitted that his previous assertion that only injected insulin could have produced Sunny's symptoms was false; certain prescription drugs might also produce a similar reaction.

The evidence of the encrusted needle was annihilated by Dr. Leo Dal Cortivo, a forensic toxicologist. He dismissed suggestions that it could have been used to inject Sunny, then gave the jury a practical demonstration why. The hypodermic was of the type which employed a separate vial, at no time would it come into contact with any insulin except through its hollow body and tiny aperture at the point. Once the insulin was injected, any residue on the needle would be wiped off by the skin as it was being withdrawn. Dal Cortivo's testimony obviously provoked speculation as to how the needle might have become encrusted. One possible solution was that it had been deliberately dipped into insulin. This theory, raising as it did the specter of Von Billow being framed, was not one which the defense actively pursued.

They didn't need to. Earlier, with the prosecution faltering, Judge Corrine Grands had almost granted the defense a mistrial, conceding that she was "holding this case together with baling wire."

As in the first trial Claus Von Billow maintained a lofty silence and did not take the witness stand. Furious family members angrily denounced this as an act of cowardice but other than a certain callous infidelity there was little that the defendant had to answer for. The jury members clearly thought so. On June 10, 1985, they acquitted Von Billow on all charges.

Considerable anger greeted this verdict, generating the belief that Claus Von B3ilow was a guilty man who had bought his freedom. Certainly his own wealth and that of affluent friends enabled him to employ the very best legal and forensic talent available, but it should be remembered that he was up against an equally well-endowed and very determined family, one prepared to spare no cost to see him convicted.

Colin Evans

Suggestions for Further Reading.

Briton, Tracy. "Von Bülow's Victory." The National Law Journal (June 24, 1985): 24ff.

Dershowitz, Alan M. Reversal Of Fortune. New York: Random House, 1986.

Frey, Darcy. "Boomerang." American Lawyer (November 1986): 36ff.

Lapayowker, Stewart. "Evidence." Temple Law Review, (Winter 1988): 1561-1586.

Wright, William. The Von Billow Affair. New York: Delacorte Press, 1983.

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"Claus Von Bulow Trials: 1982 & 1985." Great American Trials. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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