Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Claus von Bulow Case

The End, Almost

During his closing argument, Fahringer worked strenuously to instill reasonable doubt. It was more likely, he argued, that Sunny had injected herself with insulin. She didn't seem very curious about why she had fallen into the first coma, he suggested, because she knew why it happened. He also asked the jury why Alexander would go out drinking when his mother was exhibiting the same signs she had before her first coma. Was it because that was an all-too-familiar scene? And just when did Claus have time to inject Sunny that last night together? The family had eaten together, gone to the movies together and then Sunny and the children had been in each other's presence most of the evening. The only possible time for an injection was when she went into her private bathroom...

The defense had presented reliable witnesses who showed Claus wanted to work and support himself. He wasn't just interested in Sunny's money and had no reason to want her dead. And remember, he urged the jury, several medical experts had said the comas could have been caused by any number of conditions.

During the prosecution closing, Famiglietti pointed out that the children had no reason to falsely accuse a man they once loved. They didn't need Claus out of the will because there was more than enough money to go around. He noted that Maria had been the first one involved. If anyone had saved Sunny's life during that first coma, it was Maria, not Claus, as Dr. Gailitis had suggested. And no one had come forward to testify that Sunny had any kind of substance abuse problem, as Claus had suggested.

The prosecutor lambasted his opponents' case. The defense was offering multiple-choice scenarios: eggnog-induced hypoglycemia, a suicide attempt, or perhaps a botched weight-loss scheme. Maybe, Famiglietti laughed, it was a meteorite from outer space, Or maybe Claus Von Bülow had wanted his wife dead. "Mr. Von Bülow is not the first person charged with trying to kill his wife," he said. "Don't be naive, it happens in all levels of society."

After 12 hours of deliberation, while media and onlookers speculated, the jurors asked to rehear some of Maria's testimony. "If the prosecution had chosen an excerpt from their case for reprise at the finale, they could not have asked for anything more damaging to the defendant," Wright wrote of the request.

It took another four days for the jury to reach a verdict. Shortly before 11 a.m. on March 16, 1982, they pronounced Claus von Bülow guilty on both counts of attempted murder. The defendant's only visible reaction was a slight tensing of his jaw and a pause as he tapped his fingers together. When he phoned Cosima with the news, however, he reportedly broke down.

Only briefly did the prosecution ask to have Claus remanded to custody pending sentencing, but Needham agreed to continue the $100,000 bail until the hearing on a motion for a new trial.

It had been a bad few months for Herald Fahringer. He had not only lost the Jean Harris appeal, he had blown the von Bülow case as well. But Fahringer wasn't finished. In the days between the conviction and the hearing for a new trial, he took his case to the court of public opinion, making appearances on early morning news shows and arranging for Barbara Walters to interview Claus. Famiglietti and the prosecution team, however, were prohibited by department rules from commenting on the outcome publicly.

On April 2, 1982, Needham denied von Bülow's request for a new trial, saying Von Bülow's defense witnesses were without credibility. The judge then raised von Bülow's bail from $100,000 to $500,000, and Claus posted the requisite ten percent cash immediately.

A little more than a month later, Needham listened to arguments from Famiglietti and Fahringer regarding sentencing. Von Bülow declined the opportunity to comment on his own behalf, but the judge had plenty of his own to say. Needham said he held "no respect for von Bülow," a remark which would later cause him to be censured by the Rhode Island Supreme Court. He then sentenced Claus to ten years in prison on the first count, because Sunny had recovered. For the irreversible coma, he sentenced von Bülow to 20 years, but allowed him to remain free on $1 million bond pending the appeal.

"This trial of Claus von Bülow is over and the trial of justice is about to begin," Needham said.

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