The Trials of Claus Von Bulow (1982 & 1985): Selected Links and Bibliography
by Cynthia Ernst

Sunny B
ülow in 1976, four years before she entered a coma that led to two trials for her second husband, Claus von Bülow.
Claus von B
ülow in court during his attempted murder trial on Feb. 9, 1982.               

The von Bülow case was the first major criminal trial to be televised in the United States.  The trial began an international media circus which remained in the spotlight for five years.  The elements of: enormous wealth, adultery, and allegations of attempted murder in high society made this trial one of the most sensational trials of the 20th century.

Sunny von Bülow: Sunny (named after her sunny deposition) was born Martha Sharp Crawford in Manassas, Virginia on September 1, 1932.  Her father, George W. Crawford was founder of Columbia Gas, Lone Star Gas and Northern Natural Gas.  He died when Sunny was only four, leaving her an immense fortune.  Sunny attended Chapin School in Manhattan and St. Timothy’s in Maryland as a child.  She often accompanied her mother on annual visits to Parisian haute couture houses, and appeared in Vogue magazine’s list of the World’s 10 Best-Dressed Women.

On one of her European tours, while visiting the Tyrolean country club Schloss Mitersill, Sunny met and fell in love with its tennis professional, Prince Alfred von Auersperg.  The couple married in 1958 and had two children, Annie Laurie (Ala) and Alexander.  Alfred had a widely publicized affair with Italian film star Gina Lollobrigida which resulted in the couple divorcing in 1965.  At the time of the divorce Sunny’s net worth was over $75 million.  Alfred died in 1992 after lingering in an irreversible come for nine years following a 1983 car accident in Austria.

On June 6, 1966, Sunny married Claus von Bülow, a Danish-born financier.  He was closely associated with J. Paul Getty Sr., then one of the world’s richest men. They had a daughter in 1967, Cosima von Bülow.  The couple lived a charmed and glitzy existence becoming one of America’s most socially glamorous couples.

Von Bülow's accusers. Left to right (second row): Ala and Franz Kneissi, Maria Schrallhammer, Alexander von Auersperg, and their attorney Richard Kuh. (Providence Journal-Bulletin Photo)
Von Bülow's accusers. Left to right (second row): Ala and Franz Kneissi, Maria Schrallhammer, Alexander von Auersperg, and their attorney Richard Kuh.
(Providence Journal-Bulletin Photo)


Timeline of Events

1980 Incident and Indictment: On the evening of December 21, 1980, while celebrating Christmas with her family in Newport, Rhode Island, Sunny began displaying signs of confusion and lack of coordinaion.  Her family put her to bed only to find her in the morning lying on the bathroom floor, unconscious and unresponsive.  She was taken to the hospital where she slipped into a coma but was revived.  After days of testing, doctors determined the coma was the result of low blood sugar and diagnosed Sunny as hypoglycemic, warning her against overindulging on sweets or going too long without eating.

First Trial:  Claus von Bülow’s first trial for attempted murder by insulin injection began on January 11, 1982 and ended on March 16, 1982 in Newport, Rhode Island.  The prosecution claimed that Claus stood to gain $21 million from his wife’s will, and that her death would have left him free to marry his mistress, an actress named Alexandra Motlke Isles.  The defense stated that Sunny’s coma had been self-induced by a binge of drugs and sweets, including a “sugar bomb” of eggnog—12 eggs and a bottle of bourbon.

Sunny von Bülow’s maid, Maria Schrallhammer, told the court that when her mistress had fallen ill on a previous occasion, in 1979, Claus von Bülow had been slow to send for a doctor; and that she had found a bag belonging to Claus containing a hypodermic needle encrusted with insulin and a bottle marked “insulin”.

The jury convicted Claus of attempted murder of his wife Sunny and sentenced him to 30 years in prison.

After the conviction von Bülow hired Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz for his appeal.  Von Bülow’s conviction was overturned, on the grounds that the trial judge had been wrong to admit certain key pieces of evidence due to evidence being gathered without a search warrant.  The defense asked and was granted by The Court of Appeals the right to see the Auerspergs’ private detective’s initial interview notes.  These notes cast doubt on the veracity of Maria Schrallhammer.  The court ordered a retrial, which began in April of 1985.

Second Trial: The second trial began on April 25, 1985 and ended on June 10, 1985 in Providence, Rhode Island.  The crime charged was two counts of attempted murder by insulin injection.  No fewer than nine experts in endocrinology and forensic science quickly established to the satisfaction of the jurors that there had been no exogenous insulin in Sunny von Bülow, and no insulin on the hypodermic needle.  It appeared that her coma had been caused by the consummation of barbiturates, alcohol, beta-blockers, hypothermia and aspirin.  Of note was the fact that three weeks earlier Sunny had been rushed to the hospital after she had ingested nearly 100 aspirin.  Claus von Bülow was acquitted on all counts.

Aftermath: Ala and Alexander the two children of Sunny and her first husband, Prince Alfred von Auersperg, filed a $56 million civil lawsuit against Claus von Bülow, on their mother’s behalf.  On December 24, 1987 this case was settled out of court when Claus agreed to divorce Sunny, give up all claims to her fortune, then estimated between $25 million and $40 million, and leave the country.

Sunny remained in a coma until her death from cardiopulmonary arrest on December 6, 2008, at Mary Manning Walsh Nursing Home in New York City.  She was 76, had spent the past 28 years in a coma, unaware that she had played a central role in one of the most sensational trials of the 20th century.  Her memorial service, given by her three children, took place on January 14, 2009 at the Brick Presbyterian Church in New York which was the same church where the von Bülows were married.

Sunny is survived by her daughter and son by Prince Alfred von Auerperrg, and by her daughter Cosima, Countess Pavoncelli, who stood by her father throughout his ordeal in the courts.

Claus von Bülow moved to London in the late 1980’s after his marriage was dissolved. He is in his 80’s and a popular figure in London society.

Further Readings: 

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.

External Links:

Famous Trials Website