Claus von Bülow

Newport County, Rhode Island
Dates of Alleged Crimes:  1979 - 1980

Claus von Bülow was convicted of two counts of attempting to murder his wife, Martha “Sunny” von Bülow.  It was alleged that Claus had on two occasions injected Sunny with an overdose of insulin causing her to fall into a coma each time.  The alleged crimes occurred at the couple's estate, Clarendon Court, in Newport, RI.

Sunny was a former princess because of her first marriage to Prince Alfred von Auersperg.  She was also the daughter of a utilities magnate, George Crawford, and had inherited a reported $100 million from him at age 4.  Sunny had two children, Alexander and Ala, by Prince Alfie and another daughter, Cosima, by Claus.  Claus was a British socialite and the son of Danish aristocrats.  He had worked as a personal assistant to oil magnate J. Paul Getty.

On December 27, 1979, Sunny fell into a coma some hours after drinking glasses of spiked eggnog.  It was known that she could not handle alcohol.  According to Sunny's maid, Maria Schrallhammer, Claus refused to call a doctor, but he eventually relented and Sunny was taken to a hospital.  Doctors found that Sunny had abnormally low blood sugar.  They gave her intravenous dextrose in an attempt to raise her blood sugar but the dextrose caused her blood sugar level to drop, which indicated Sunny had higher than normal levels of insulin.  Insulin is produced by the body, but also can be injected.  Sunny soon recovered from her coma.

Doctors diagnosed Sunny as being hypoglycemic, which meant that her blood sugar level was normally low and if she overindulged in sweets or went too long without eating, she could possibly fall into another coma.  Alcohol can also affect blood sugar because when the liver metabolizes alcohol, it does not release any sugar, although sugar can still enter the blood stream via digestion such as by eating sweets.  Sunny denied injecting herself with insulin and said she really did not know what caused her coma.  Sunny was not diabetic and had no need for insulin.  Judging from Sunny's past trouble with alcohol, it seems clear that she had been hypoglycemic for some time.

Several weeks later, while cleaning a closet, Sunny's maid found a black travel bag used by Claus containing various medicines, some in injectable form.  She alerted Ala who took samples of the medicines and had them tested.  Nothing alarming was found.  No one asked Sunny if she knew about the black bag.  The maid said she had previously seen Claus inject Sunny with vitamins.  Friends of Sunny, Truman Capote and Joanne Carson, ex-wife of the Tonight Show host, later swore in depositions that Sunny was a regular IV drug user.  Although Claus did not testify at his trials, he said the black bag had been his, but it was taken over by Sunny.  After Sunny's coma, her mother in collaboration with her maid had taken all her medicines; Sunny responded by hiding medicines she acquired in various places such as Claus's black bag.

About a year later, on the night of Dec 20, 1980, Sunny was having trouble holding a drinking glass and staggered as she tried to get up.  Alexander asked his mother if she had taken any sleeping pills or barbiturates. She said no. He picked her up and carried her into her bedroom, then went to get Claus.  After Claus came, Alexander left to attend a gathering of some friends.  The next morning Claus found Sunny lying unconscious in her bathroom.  He summoned Alexander to her side and called for an ambulance.  She was found to be in a coma and was taken to a hospital which later determined that her coma was irreversible.

Because of suspicions raised by the two comas, Ala and Alexander consulted an attorney, Richard Kuh, who conducted a private investigation.  Like Sunny's first coma, her second coma was purportedly caused by low blood sugar.  A physician told Ala and Alexander that Sunny's coma could only have been caused by an injection of insulin.  Tests performed on Sunny's blood showed that it contained 216 microunits of insulin per milliliter, a level that is abnormally high.  Normal insulin level is between 20 and 100 microunits, although it can vary outside this range.  Kuh's investigation found that Claus's black bag contained syringes, one of which had medicine encrusted on the tip.  When tested, the medicine was determined to be insulin.  Sunny's maid would later testify she saw a bottle of injectable insulin in Claus's black bag a few weeks before Sunny's second coma.

The Rhode Island authorities soon got involved and brought Claus to trial.  The state presented a chain of evidence which linked Claus to the alleged crime: (1) Insulin was seen in his black bag. (2) A used syringe containing insulin was found in the black bag and this syringe was presumably used to inject Sunny. (3) Sunny had an abnormally high level of insulin in her system indicating it had been injected into her.

Additional evidence was presented that Claus had a motive to kill Sunny.  He was having an affair with Alexandra Isles, a soap opera star, who reportedly had given Claus an ultimatum that he would have to choose her or Sunny.  Claus said that Sunny knew about the affair, but she had lost all interest in sex after the 1967 birth of their daughter, Cosima.  Claus also stood to gain $14 million if Sunny died.  His personal net worth was only $1 million.

Following his conviction for which he was sentenced to 30 years in prison, Claus hired Alan Dershowitz, a prominent appellate attorney.  Dershowitz found that three tests were done to determine Sunny's insulin level and the results varied wildly from 0.8 to 350 microunits per milliliter, making the results meaningless.  It was argued that the syringe which reportedly had insulin encrusted on its tip could not have been used to inject Sunny, since an injection into human tissue would have wiped the tip clean.  This syringe may have been planted.  Dershowitz's investigators also submitted a number of syringes with various medicines on them to the same lab that tested the syringe found in the black bag.  The lab produced anomalous results including finding insulin present on some of the syringes, when in fact no insulin was present.

Dershowitz also requested the investigation notes of Ala and Alexander's private attorney, Richard Kuh.  Kuh refused to turn them over, arguing they were protected by attorney-client confidentiality.  In Dershowitz's appeal to the Rhode Island Supreme Court, he noted that Kuh had used his notes at trial when the prosecution called him as a rebuttal witness against Sunny's chauffeur.  The appeal asserted that the prosecution was thus allowed to use Kuh's claim of attorney-client confidentiality as “a shield against disclosing information when the disclosure might have helped the defense, and as a sword against the defense when disclosure might serve his clients' and the prosecutors' tactical interests.”

The appeal succeeded in overturning Claus's conviction.  The state supreme court also ordered Kuh to turn over his notes to the defense.  In Kuh's notes, Sunny's maid never mentioned seeing any insulin.  At Claus's retrial she admitted she could not have seen insulin in the black bag as all the labels of the medicines had been scraped off.  With the maid's admission, the last of the medical evidence against Claus was discredited.  Claus was subsequently acquitted.

According to Claus, Sunny's comas followed times when she was upset and thus could be characterized  as suicide attempts.  Prior to her first coma, Sunny was upset with Claus because he wanted to exert independence from her by engaging in productive work which would require him to leave her for periods of time.  Prior to her second coma, Sunny was upset because Claus was going to accept an offered position in the oil business, which would have meant that he would have to spend some time in Europe.  Three weeks before her second coma, Alexandra Isles had dropped off at Clarendon Court a bag full of love letters between herself and Claus.  Since Claus was not home and the bag was not addressed specifically to him, Sunny had read some of the letters and was upset.  She was subsequently hospitalized after ingesting at least 73 aspirin tablets.  It was suggested that Sunny could have been taking insulin for weight loss purposes, but Claus did not believe she ever had insulin.

Also according to Claus, Sunny, by virtue of her wealth, was a very powerful person and not someone one could readily cross or say “no” to. Since Sunny hated doctors and hospitals, he was loath to summon a doctor to see her unless there was no alternative.

Following Claus's acquittal on criminal charges, Ala and Alexander filed a civil suit against Claus for allegedly causing their mother's permanent coma.  Claus's daughter, Cosima, had been denied her inheritance in the Crawford family fortune because she had supported her father.  Claus settled the suit by agreeing to divorce Sunny and relinquish claim to any money due him upon her death.  In return, Cosima had her inheritance restored and she received an equal share of an $105 million fortune with her step-siblings.

Alan Dershowitz wrote a book about the case entitled Reversal of Fortune.  A major motion picture was made based on the book and sharing the same title.  Sunny von Bülow died in 2007.  [11/09]

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References:  American Justice, Law LibraryCourt Actions

Posted in:  Victims of the State, Rhode Island Cases