Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Claus von Bulow Case


Claus von Bülow wasted no time in regrouping. He needed additional counsel. Fahringer and Sheehan had let him down, plus they were trial lawyers, and he needed the best appellate lawyer in America. He turned to Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard Law School professor whose mastery of the appeals process is widely lauded.

Alan Dershowitz (CORBIS)
Alan Dershowitz

Dershowitz was first in his class at Yale Law School, and was Editor-in-Chief of the Yale Law Journal. After clerking for Judge David Bazelon and Justice Arthur Goldberg, he was appointed to the Harvard Law faculty, where he became a full professor at age 28, the youngest in the school's history.

Dershowitz has been a staunch defender of civil rights and, as such, has often taken on dastardly clients. Dershowitz has said he is more concerned with the process that determines guilt or innocence than with the guilt or innocence of his clients. Society suffers, he believes, when a guilty man is convicted through the abrogation of his civil rights. To say the constitutional rights against self-incrimination or police abuse of power don't apply to the guilty is the same as saying they don't apply to the innocent.

"Believing in the innocence of my client is not a relevant factor in deciding which cases to take," Dershowitz said in an online chat with "Neither is the wealth of the client. I take more pro bono cases than any other lawyer in private practice in the U.S."

Nevertheless, when Dershowitz answered the phone in his Cambridge, Mass., office and heard von Bülow's voice, he thought he was the victim of a practical joke. When it turned out that Claus was asking for his help, Dershowitz remained reluctant. He believed him guilty, but he agreed to meet with von Bülow and look at the merits of the case.

Dershowitz writes in Reversal of Fortune that in their first meeting over lunch, von Bülow laid his case on the table. "I need the best lawyer I can get," he said. "I am absolutely innocent and my civil liberties have been egregiously violated." He also asked for a friend and someone who would "be straight with me."

But Dershowitz spelled out the part he was willing to play. "I can't be both your friend and always be straight with you. I can be your lawyer... and I will always be straight with you. A lawyer has to be brutally honest."

The early days of the appellate process were a bit rocky, with Fahringer, Sheehan, and now Dershowitz, trying to figure out their places on the team. Fahringer and Sheehan successfully argued von Bülow's bail hearing pending the appeals process, but soon afterward, Fahringer withdrew from the case. Von Bülow thought it necessary to keep Sheehan on board because of his familiarity with the Rhode Island judicial process, but Dershowitz was running the show.

There were two separate issues to attack in the appeals process. First, von Bülow would seek to have the Rhode Island Supreme Court overturn his convictions on the grounds that the evidence against him was tainted by constitutional violations, specifically the statements he made to Reise and the search of his house by Alexander and Eddie Lambert.

Second, von Bülow wanted a new trial to introduce evidence that was unavailable at the first trial. The appeal of the original conviction would have to be made on the basis of the evidence presented during the 1982 trial in Newport, and nothing else. The facts of the case were no longer in dispute, only the actions of the parties, specifically Judge Needham.