Claus von Bulow, accused of trying to kill wife and later cleared, dies at 92

By Caroline Linton

/ CBS News

Claus von Bulow, the high-society figure who was first convicted and then eventually cleared of attempting to kill his heiress wife, has died, his son-in-law told The New York Times. He was 92.

In a case that made national headlines and later became a movie, von Bulow was accused of trying to kill his wife, Martha "Sunny" von Bulow, twice by injecting her with insulin to trigger her hypoglycemia, a low-blood-sugar condition. Sunny von Bulow, whose mother , went into a coma in December 1979, from which she recovered. She went into second coma in December 1980 that put her in a vegetative state until her death in 2008.

Von Bulow was convicted by a jury in Newport, Rhode Island, of attempted murder and was sentenced to 30 years in prison in 1982. The case divided Newport society figures, and he was championed by Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, who later wrote the bestselling book "Reversal of Fortune" about the case. He maintained his innocence and was granted a second trial, where he was acquitted.

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The case also split the couple's children. Von Bulow's main accusers were Sunny von Bulow's children from a previous marriage, Princess Annie Laurie von Auersperg Kneissl and Prince Alexander von Auersperg. The couple's daughter, meanwhile, stood by him, which caused her grandmother to exclude her from the will for a time.

Claus von Bulow, right, arrives at Providence, R.I. Superior Court with his daughter, Cosima, as the jury starts its third day of deliberations in his attempted murder trial, June 9, 1985. Charles Krupa/AP

Von Bulow was born Claus Cecil Barber in Copenhagen, Denmark, on August 11, 1926. Von Bulow was sent to Britain to live with his mother during World War II, where he took his maternal family's name, Bulow, according to the Times. He later added the "von." After World War II, von Bulow's father, Svend Borberg, was accused of being a Nazi collaborator and sentenced to four years in prison, although he was released on appeal after 18 months.

Bulow became known in the swinging 1960s high-society in London. A graduate of Trinity College, Cambridge, von Bulow was hired as an administrative assistant to controversial oil tycoon J. Paul Getty, and he remained close with the family. In 1966, he married Martha Crawford von Auersperg, known as Sunny, who had recently divorced her first husband, Prince Alfred von Auersperg, a younger, penniless tennis pro in an Austrian resort catering to rich Americans. Her father, George Crawford, had founded the Columbia Gas and Electric Company.

The couple lived large, with a 12-room apartment on 5th Avenue in New York City and a palatial 10-acre estate in Newport. Prosecutors later portrayed their marriage as unhappy and accused him of trying to kill her so he could inherit her fortune and marry his mistress, who later testified against him. If they had divorced, he stood to lose the $14 million he would inherit in her will.

The defense, meanwhile, depicted her as a pill-popper and accused her of drinking herself into a coma. The family's maid testified he refused to let her call for help when Sunny von Bulow fell into a coma, and that she found syringes full of drugs in a black bag.

He was convicted in 1982 in Newport, but the Rhode Island Supreme Court reversed his conviction two years later. The case helped make Dershowitz, who spearheaded the appeal, famous. Dershowitz told the Associated Press on Thursday it was the first time any appeal was covered on television.

"It was the first really highly publicized case in the new age of widespread media coverage," Dershowitz said. "It was a prelude in many ways to the O.J. Simpson case, but it was a decade earlier."

Von Bulow's second trial was held in Providence in 1985, and his new defense team challenged the medical testimony that her coma was the result of insulin injections. He was acquitted but his stepchildren brought a civil case against him just one month later. In the settlement, he agreed to divorce his wife — giving up the right to oversee her medical care — and renounce his rights to her fortune, which restored his daughter's right to her inheritance.

Bulow also agreed to leave the country, and forfeited the right to speak publicly about the case or profit from it. As a result, he never gave any interviews and only issued a brief statement upon her death in 2008. He later moved to London.

The movie based on Dershowitz's book, "Reversal of Fortune," starred Glenn Close and Jeremy Irons.

First published on May 30, 2019 / 7:44 PM

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