The two trials of Danish-born aristocrat Claus von Bülow in 1981 and 1985, respectively, could not have been more unalike in both content and outcome. The story behind these two trials so widely reported by the world’s media is skillfully delivered by one of the most important attorneys for the defense, Alan M. Dershowitz. His book, Reversal of Fortune: Inside the von Bülow Case, demonstrates that though the legal proceedings often bordered upon soap opera, they were important in that they showed how notorious and despised individuals such as von Bülow can be found guilty in one trial and found innocent in a retrial as long as the defense works hard enough and long enough to find new evidence, to discredit prosecution witnesses, and to make the defendant more believable.
Reversal of Fortune not only acquaints readers with the events that led to the first and second trials but also with the problems of that hidden society of America’s wealthy: drug dependency, festering jealousies and hatreds, child neglect and abuse, alcoholism, and boredom. Martha von Bülow (always referred to as Sunny by her friends) was deeply influenced by the amoral Newport, Rhode Island, society within which she circulated. A shy and quiet person, Sunny turned to overindulgence in food, alcohol, pills, and vitamin injections for solace. Her life, she often told her peers, was tiring and empty. As Dershowitz sees it, her two comas were not the result of attempted murder on the part of her husband but, rather, a logical extension of her abuse of her system.
Dershowitz sets out to prove that the first trial of von Bülow could have easily ended in his acquittal if it were not for two things: the insulin-laced needle found in a black bag by private investigator Richard Kuh, hired by members of Sunny’s family, and the theatrical but convincing testimony against von Bülow by Maria Schrallhammer, Sunny’s maid, whose testimony was the most damaging of all the witnesses.
Schrallhammer’s sad, frail appearance, her good memory for facts, and her evident loyalty to Sunny made her a first-rate prosecution witness. In her description of the events occurring on December 27, 1979, the day Sunny nearly died in her Newport mansion, Clarendon Court, Maria testified that she had seen von Bülow early that morning and that he had instructed her not to bother his wife because she was suffering from a sore throat. After approaching Sunny’s bedroom door, she heard nothing coming from within. Entering the room, she discovered Sunny unconscious and cold to the touch. Von Bülow told her not to worry about Sunny, but Schrallhammer, against his wishes, telephoned Dr. Janis Gailitis, who came to Clarendon Court, administered cardiopulmonary resuscitation, and sent her to a local hospital, thus saving her life. Sunny regained consciousness the following day.
The black vinyl bag which Schrallhammer found in von Bülow’s suitcase shortly after the first of Sunny’s comas contained various drugs. Their use was carefully monitored by both Schrallhammer and the two von Auersperg children. On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, 1980, the maid found the black bag once again, unzipped it, and discovered that this time it contained, among other things, a vial marked insulin. Soon thereafter, Sunny was once again found in a comatose state, this time on the bathroom floor.
When Richard Kuh, private investigator, was hired by Annie Laurie Aitken and other relatives of Sunny, he allegedly found the black bag hidden inside a metal box. Inside it were medicines and three hypodermic needles, one of which was covered with insulin. This dripping needle led to the arrest, trial, and conviction of Claus von Bülow on charges of attempted murder.
Since the prosecution had a murder weapon (the needle coated with insulin), a motive (von Bülow, not a particularly wealthy man, married into a fortune when he wed Sunny), and solid, believable witnesses, it had a powerful case against the defendant. Added to its arsenal was the knowledge that there had been a lengthy affair between von Bülow and the beautiful actress Alexandra Isles. Not only could von Bülow have tried to kill Sunny for money but also to be able to marry Isles.
As Dershowitz points out, the first trial had all the elements of an Agatha Christie mystery, and because it did, it captured headlines in newspapers around the world. The articles about von Bülow generally assumed his guilt. According to the author, the defense attorneys faltered partly because of convincing prosecution witnesses and partly because the case against von Bülow was well assembled. In May, 1982, von Bülow was found guilty of the crime of which he had been accused and faced up to forty years in prison. If he had not chosen to seek an appeal, he surely would have fared badly in the notoriously dangerous Rhode Island prison system, where only expensive Mafia protection would have kept him from harm.
During the period between the first and second trials, Dershowitz struggled with the matter of von Bülow’s guilt or innocence. Initially, he thought that von Bülow was probably guilty of the crime, yet after gaining the defendant’s confidence, the attorney came to believe in his probable innocence. After granting von Bülow’s request that he help defend him by appealing the verdict in Rhode Island’s supreme court, Dershowitz told him that he would work on the case on the condition that they be straightforward with each other. Von Bülow then dismissed his first two attorneys and worked with Dershowitz.
Dershowitz’s success in mounting the von Bülow appeal was directly attributable to his capacity to assemble and motivate teams of students from Harvard Law School, each of which was given one lead to investigate thoroughly. It also rested upon his conviction that appellate judges are human beings fully interested in seeing justice prevail. Because of that interest,...