Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Claus von Bulow Case

To Court

Media frenzy outside the courthouse
Media frenzy outside the courthouse

The atmosphere surrounding the Newport courthouse was electric the day Claus appeared for his arraignment on July 13, 1981. Here was a socialite accused of trying to murder his wife for her money; throw in the attractive soap star Alexandra Isles and the conditions were ripe for a media circus.

When Claus arrived at the courthouse, he found reporters and photographers from newspapers, TV stations and wire services from up and down the East Coast. Claus and his lawyers had to make their way through the throng of media and the curious bystanders. A European news crew gave chase to his car as he emerged from the courthouse free on $100,000 bail.

Jump ahead to January 1982, a month before the trial began Claus von Bülow hired two of the best attorneys available, John Sheehan and Herald Fahringer. A flamboyant, high-profile attorney, Fahringer is best known for handling the appeal of Jean Harris, the school mistress accused of killing her lover, the Scarsdale Diet doctor. Sheehan, on the other hand, was a Rhode Island attorney who knew the way things worked inside the state's courthouses. Sheehan's role would be to help Fahringer navigate the tricky shoals of Rhode Island law.

Before the trial began, von Bülow's team attempted to have the notorious black bag excluded as evidence because it had been illegally obtained. No one had a search warrant the night Alexander, Eddie Lambert and the locksmith went to Clarendon Court to get the bag. Of course, no warrant was needed because the men were not working as agents of the government, but when they turned the materials over to the state of Rhode Island for testing, then a warrant might have been necessary.

Lt. Jack Reise, von Bulow & attorney H.P. Fahringer
Lt. Jack Reise, von Bülow & attorney H.P.

They also wanted to bar von Bülow's statement to Reise on the night the search warrant was executed and to exclude medical evidence, as it would violate the patient-doctor privilege. Such a privilege could not be waived, they argued, unless Sunny was able to do it.

Judge Thomas H. Needham opted to proceed with jury selection and take the motions under advisement.

Jury selection took eight days. None of the jurors could be said to be peers of someone like Claus von Bülow, a man who had lived most of his life in luxury, but they were 12 citizens who all said they could put aside personal feelings about rich people and drug users and adulterers and princesses to render a fair verdict.

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