Reversal of Fortune

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 434

In March, 1982, international socialite and Danish aristocrat Claus von Bulow was found guilty of attempting to murder his immensely wealthy, comatose wife, Sunny, at her palatial mansion, Clarendon Court, in Newport, Rhode Island, by insulin injection on two occasions, in December, 1979, and in December, 1980. Sentenced to thirty...

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In March, 1982, international socialite and Danish aristocrat Claus von Bulow was found guilty of attempting to murder his immensely wealthy, comatose wife, Sunny, at her palatial mansion, Clarendon Court, in Newport, Rhode Island, by insulin injection on two occasions, in December, 1979, and in December, 1980. Sentenced to thirty years in prison but granted one-million-dollar bail pending appeal, von Bulow hired the author as his new leading defense counsel. Dershowitz created a defense team which, by June, 1985, succeeded in securing a reversal of von Bulow’s conviction, a new trial, and an acquittal on both counts of assault with intent to murder.

The von Bulow case was the dream of the media. It had all the ingredients to catch the imagination of a public addicted to soap-opera excesses: fabulous wealth, sex, drugs, aristocracy, servants, and all the other accoutrements of the international jet set. It contained many features of the classic mystery, including a dramatic piece of evidence: an incriminating black bag containing drugs and a syringe with an insulin-encrusted needle.

Claus von Bulow’s conviction at his first trial was rendered with great assurance by a jury never allowed access to the notes of the private attorney of the victim’s family, Richard Kuh, and convinced by the inadequately challenged expert medical testimony provided by the prosecution. The prosecutor’s case, however, was too pat. The cleverness of the alleged crime and the intelligence of von Bulow did not match with the clumsy discarding of the easily found black bag with its incriminating evidence. The step-children, although possibly convinced of von Bulow’s guilt, had financial motives for securing his conviction, and the defendant himself always held fast to his claim of innocence.

Dissatisfied with his counsel at his first trial, von Bulow sought out noted defense lawyer and Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz. After accepting the case, Dershowitz soon became convinced that his client’s innocence could be established, primarily by gathering new scientific evidence that would undermine the significance of the insulin-encrusted needle introduced at the first trial and by gaining access to the Kuh notes, which would possibly discredit the testimony of two key prosecution witnesses, the stepson and the maid. Most of the book is devoted to these and other aspects of the work of the defense team in the three years between von Bulow’s conviction and acquittal.

Dershowitz has provided a very persuasive argument in favor of his client’s innocence and of his investigative and defense methods. This is a book that makes instructive reading for the criminal lawyer and provides entertainment and enlightenment to the lay reader.

Reversal of Fortune

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2436

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, Dershowitz believed that they would pay careful attention to the circumstantial evidence upon which the prosecution had built the case against von Bülow. In particular, Dershowitz made certain that the judges would take a close look at the search conducted by the private investigator Kuh. They would especially need to know everything possible about the insulin-encrusted needle found in the black bag.

Another key bit of evidence which had to be examined was not used in the first trial: the Kuh notes. The notes, upon which much of the prosecution’s case had indirectly rested, held several surprises for defense and prosecution alike. When approached, Kuh at first refused to give his notes to Dershowitz, but later he relented. What Dershowitz discovered in the notes was compelling evidence that von Bülow was innocent.

The second lead for the defense effort came from the well-known fiction writer Truman Capote, who told Dershowitz what he knew about Sunny von Bülow. The picture Capote painted of Sunny was one of a drug addict who used needles both for the injection of illegal substances and vitamins. Capote said that when he had last seen Sunny prior to her first coma, she confided in him that she enjoyed mixing Demerol and amphetamines and then injecting them into her veins. Capote’s story was given validation when corroborated by a socialite friend of Sunny, C. Z. Guest, who recalled Capote relating that Sunny was fond of injecting drugs. To underscore the point, Capote said that when he had heard about Sunny’s coma, he had immediately surmised that it was self-induced. That Sunny’s husband actually was tried for attempted murder both amazed and shocked Capote to the extent he told Dershowitz that he would serve as a defense witness in a new trial. Unfortunately, Capote died before he could take the stand.

It was also unfortunate that Dershowitz wasted so much time talking to a twenty-eight-year-old Massachusetts man named David Marriott. Marriott, later suspected by Dershowitz of drug dealing and keeping company with underworld figures, came to the attorney with the story that Sunny’s son, Alex Auersperg, had once given him a bag containing white powder and a number of pills to deliver to Sunny’s home, Clarendon Court. The unidentified blonde woman who took the bag from Marriott was, according to Marriott, none other than Sunny von Bülow, something he did not realize until he saw her on the evening news.

What testimony Marriott had to offer Dershowitz was devalued by his quirky, unstable personality and love of publicity stunts. In Dershowitz’s opinion, no jury would take Marriott seriously no matter what facts he might have to convey. In time, Dershowitz demonstrated that the “facts” Marriott had given him were untrue statements. Even the New England parish priest, Father Philip Magaldi, whom Marriott said could confirm everything he had told Dershowitz, turned out to be a highly questionable source of information.

Nevertheless, the Marriott-Magaldi information did help the defense drive in one way: It turned Dershowitz’s attention toward the contents of the black bag. Acting on his instructions, the attorney’s law students examined every bit of testimony relating to that bag.

The slap-dash search by private investigator Kuh, his failure to remember seeing pill containers in the bag (ones seen by other witnesses), the fact that he took no photographs of evidence or fingerprints, or made a record of what exactly was found in the bag, all went against him. Nevertheless, the fact that a vial of Dalmine with the defendant’s name on its label was supposedly seen by Alex von Auersperg during the search had to be dealt with by Dershowitz. (Everything else found in the bag could have been used by Sunny.) The detective testified that it was in fact a vial of Inderal, not Dalmine, and that the name on the prescription was Martha von Bülow’s rather than that of her husband.

Evidence was also gathered from well-respected forensic scientists attesting the fact that insulin found on the needle which supposedly caused Sunny’s coma could not have been injected, since it was dripping off the length of the needle rather than simply the end of it. Also, the tests conducted on Sunny just after she was brought to the hospital were determined to be inconclusive. In fact, it was found that when experimental needle washings were done by a laboratory first using a compound of insulin, amobarbital, valium, and a saline solution, then saline solution only, and finally amobarbital, valium, and saline solution, the third concoction came back with the same positive reading indicating the same presence of insulin that the first one did. This indicated to the defense that no insulin needed to have been present in Sunny’s system to have produced the kind of test results obtained.

Another problem Dershowitz dealt with was that posed by Harvard Medical School specialist Dr. George Cahill, whose pronouncement had been that Sunny was put into a coma by insulin and insulin only. His unequivocal statement, which was used as testimony in the first trial, was based upon his reading of Sunny’s blood sugar level at the time of her coma. Cahill had been asked in court about a hypothetical person whose condition was supposedly the same as Sunny’s when she had fallen into a coma. Dershowitz discovered that the condition of the hypothetical coma victim cited by the prosecution was different from that of Sunny von Bülow. Thus, Cahill’s assumption of insulin injection, based as it was on false data, was shown to be without basis in fact.

Dershowitz, with new arguments in hand showing that von Bülow’s first trial had been a miscarriage of justice, decided upon the highly risky strategy of asking Rhode Island Supreme Court justices to overturn the first trial’s verdict. He decided to show all the new evidence at the same time rather than rely on technical arguments or exclusionary rules.

The fifty-thousand-word brief filed on March 15, 1983, claimed that the evidence discovered by the defense team was such that it strongly argued for the innocence of defendant Claus von Bülow. Soon thereafter came not only the filing of a new trial motion but also the startling revelation that Maria Schrallhammer had known about Sunny’s drug problems for years and had hidden the fact from others. The revelation came from the Kuh notes, and quite possibly it alone persuaded the justices to decree that a new trial would take place. At this trial, Dershowitz made clear, much would be made of the Kuh notes as well as the inconsistencies of various prosecution witnesses.

The second trial’s cast of characters was in many ways the same as the first trial’s. Maria Schrallhammer again took the stand to testify against von Bülow. Yet, this time, her testimony was not delivered with her original intensity. Moreover, this time she also fared poorly under cross-examination, especially because the Kuh notes indicated that she probably did not see a vial marked insulin in the black bag after all. The notes hinted at possible von Auersperg family collusion to doctor evidence. Furthermore, the notes revealed that Alex von Auersperg wanted to make certain that von Bülow would never be given control of Clarendon Court, which thus gave Alex a motive for doctoring evidence.

Dershowitz’s investigations demonstrated that witnesses used by the prosecutor had been unreliable, that insulin probably was not what had induced Sunny’s coma, and that Sunny’s children from her first marriage hated von Bülow and wanted him out of their lives and away from the family fortune. The prosecution, relying heavily on the emotional impact of testimony by Schrallhammer and Isles, could not stave off attacks on their credibility by defense attorney Thomas Puccio.

The result of the second trial was that dramatic reversal of fortune alluded to in the title of Dershowitz’ book. Twelve ordinary Rhode Islanders, sorting out the evidence shown them, saved a jet-setting aristocrat from going to prison for the rest of his life. The trial itself, which at times degenerated into a media circus, joined the ranks of the great, attention-getting trials of the twentieth century.

The von Bülow case will likely serve as an inspiration to defense attorneys. It proves that if a defense attorney believes in the innocence of his client and can mount a thoroughgoing investigation of evidence submitted at the trial, he may very well, despite great odds against him, win on appeal and obtain a new trial for his client.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 60

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Booklist. LXXXII, February 15, 1986, p. 835.

Chicago Tribune. July 22, 1986, V, p. 3.

Kirkus Reviews. LIV, February 1, 1986, p. 181.

Library Journal. CXI, April 1, 1986, p. 143.

The New Republic. CXCIV, June 16, 1986, p. 36.

The New York Review of Books. XXXIII, November 6, 1986, p. 25.

The New York Times Book Review. XCI, June 15, 1986, p. 9.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXIX, February 14, 1986, p. 835.

Washington Post Book World. XVI, June 8, 1986, p. 1.

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