Icy Guilt

4 minute read

Von Bülow could get 40 years

In the crowded Newport courtroom, spectators gasped. “My God!” cried one. “I don’t believe it.” The prosecutors seemed almost as surprised; they beamed and squeezed each other’s hands in celebration. “By God, we’ve done it,” whispered Rhode Island Assistant Attorney General Stephen Famiglietti. But as Jury Foreman Barbara Connett twice pronounced the verdict “Guilty,” Claus von Bülow, 55, did not even flinch. Except for a flush of bright crimson in his cheeks, he was completely impassive, as he had been throughout the nine-week trial. His urbane façade finally crumbled a few minutes later when he placed a call to his 14-year-old daughter in New York. Hearing her voice, the aristocratic Dane dissolved in tears.

Convicted of twice attempting to murder his heiress wife Martha (“Sunny”) with injections of insulin, Von Bülow faces up to 40 years in prison. The prosecution, arguing that he might flee the country, asked that his $100,000 bail be revoked. But Judge Thomas Needham denied the motion, leaving Von Bülow free pending sentencing, probably in May.

Von Bülow’s stepchildren, Annie-Laurie Kneissl and Alexander von Auersperg, who initiated the investigation that led to the charges, were “quietly satisfied” when told of the verdict, according to their attorney, Richard Kuh. Said he: “Mrs. Von Bülow will be in a coma for the rest of her life. At least, seeing a wrongdoer brought to justice makes the trial seem it has not been all in vain.”

As word of the verdict spread, several hundred people gathered outside the colonial-style courthouse, drawn by Von Bülow’s icy charisma. Cheers rose when he was spotted at a second-floor window, and again when he walked down the courthouse steps. There were chants of “He’s innocent!” and “Free Claus!” Von Bülow smiled slightly, then said “Thank you” in a very small voice.

Von Bülow held no such sway over the jury. The seven men and five women deliberated for more than 37 hours but needed only one vote to reach a verdict. Said Juror Constance F. Jenrette, a laid-off factory worker: “Everything just fit together all of a sudden.” They apparently were persuaded by the prosecution argument that Von Bülow wanted to kill Sunny so he could marry another woman, New York Socialite Alexandra Isles, 36, without losing his share of his wife’s $75 million fortune. In 1979 and again in 1980, Sunny lapsed into comas, the second irreversible, and she is now hospitalized in Manhattan. The most important witnesses were Endocrinologist George Cahill of Harvard Medical School, who testified that Sunny’s comas had to have been caused by insulin injections, and Maria Schrallhammer, Sunny’s personal maid of 23 years. She told the court that for nine hours Von Bülow had refused to summon medical help for his unconscious wife. Schrallhammer also discovered in Von Bülow’s closet a small black bag containing vials of drugs and hypodermic needles, one of which was later found to have traces of insulin. Said Defense Attorney Herald Price Fahringer: “Her testimony was one of the most devastating pieces of evidence that came in against us.”

The defense sought without success to paint Sunny as a neurotic, unstable woman who precipitated her own comas with alcohol, barbiturates or even insulin, either by accident or during suicide attempts. Von Bülow never testified. Explained Fahringer: “The case was thin enough from our standpoint that it didn’t require him to take the stand.”

After the jury returned, Judge Needham disclosed that he had barred the prosecution from introducing a potentially damaging piece of testimony: that Von Bülow had asked his stepchildren not to take heroic measures to keep Sunny alive should her condition worsen; a physician had raised this issue with Von Bülow as one of the family’s options. Needham said that he feared such a revelation would prejudice jurors against Von Bülow without contributing any evidence that he had tried to kill his wife.

At week’s end Fahringer said that he had just discovered witnesses who could prove that Sunny was injecting herself with insulin to assuage her craving for sweets. Von Bülow, the attorney said, was “remarkably brave” and “hopeful” about his appeal.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com