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12.07.08

Covering the Sunny von Bulow Trial

The death after 28 years in a coma of Sunny von Bulow brings back memories for ABC News correspondent Lynn Sherr, who recounts the sensational legal circus of the 1980s for The Daily Beast.

I never met Martha (“Sunny”) von Bulow—never enjoyed her Grace Kelly beauty, never partied at her 23-room mansion in Newport, R.I. But for most of one winter and another spring in the 1980s, I knew almost as many intimate details about Sunny as I did about my husband. That's because I was the ABC News correspondent covering the trial, and later retrial, of the man accused of trying to murder her: Claus von Bulow, her husband.

It was the sensational legal circus of its day—our O.J.—with a blend of money, sex, and power that was irresistible. At 55, Claus, a tall, aristocratic Danish-born, British-bred financier (who added the “von” and the “Bulow” to his own name), was accused of trying to murder his heiress wife (she'd inherited $75 million) by injecting her—twice—with insulin. She was not a diabetic.

With Sunny in an irreversible coma and the house boarded up, Claus settled into the same motel where our ABC crew was staying that bitter cold winter.

Sunny's two children by her first marriage, convinced of their stepfather's guilt, had brought the case to the state. Claus maintained he was innocent, ultimately suggesting that his wife might have injected herself with insulin to lose weight. Diet, too! The case had everything, a high-society melodrama that the press inhaled.

“The difference between marital violence in Newport, Rhode Island, and anywhere else,” I began my scene-setter piece, “is that in Newport, Rhode Island, it's alleged to have taken place in a cottage. This is a cottage.” Cut to an aerial shot of Clarenden Court, the von Bulow mansion on Millionnaires' Row that might dwarf many small colleges.

With Sunny in an irreversible coma and the house boarded up, Claus settled into the same motel where our ABC crew was staying that bitter cold winter.  We frequently had breakfast together—it was a small motel—during which we both followed the rules and avoided trial talk. His comments gravitated toward sex, violence, and J.Paul Getty Jr., for whom he had worked in London. Mine tended toward getting him to go on camera for his first public interview. He finally agreed—giving us a scoop—but the icy Dane uttered only platitudes, with just one stoic reference to the “terrible ordeal” he was going through.

The trial was one of the first to allow a video camera in the courtroom, but in those days of only three major broadcast networks and a fledgling CNN, most folks had to wait for the evening news for the day's revelations. Even my husband, Larry Hilford, a television executive, got hooked, calling me up one day and suggesting I tell ABC News President Roone Arledge that he ought to run the testimony uninterrupted on another channel. Unwittingly, Larry had just invented Court TV.

The trial took place in a perfect New England courthouse on a staid town square with a takeout lunch joint called the Full Belly (or was it Beli?) Deli. One star: The German maid who clammed up under oath about her boss's face-lift (“I promised Mrs. von Bulow…that I never talk about when she tells me I shouldn't”) but laid into her employer's husband when she found a little black bag containing a bottle of insulin. “And I said, 'Insulin? For what insulin?'” testified Maria Schrallhammer in one of the most damning statements of the trial.

It got seamier. In an attempt to prove that Claus had tried to murder his wife, the prosecution called “the other woman” to the stand. Alexandra Isles, who hated the term “mistress” but admitted to being von Bulow's lover, testified with all the drama of the soap opera actress she'd once been. “He said that he loved me,” she said. “I loved him.” She said they'd discussed marriage and that when she'd heard he was under investigation for attempted murder, she thought the charge “was a pack of nonsense.”

Now it got really interesting.

Prosecutor: “Do you still think it's a pack of nonsense?”

Isles: “No.”

“I didn't hear that answer.”

“I don't know.”

“Do you still love the defendant?”

“I don't know.”

It was prosecutorial dynamite and not bad for ratings, either. The Isles testimony so entranced executive producer Jeff Gralnick of ABC's World News Tonight that right after my story ran, he called from New York and asked almost sheepishly, “Can you give me another ten seconds for the next feed?” It was the first and only time I have every been asked to add time to a story.

The upstairs/downstairs revelations were a titillating inside look at how the rich and famous lived—stories about drugs and depression and royalty. After five days of deliberations, when the jury returned and avoided looking at the defendant, I knew which way it was going. Claus von Bulow was convicted of two counts of attempted murder. But three years later he was acquitted in a retrial in Providence (ordered because the judge said the black bag in evidence had been improperly handled by authorities). In the Hollywood movie, Reversal of Fortune, Jeremy Irons portrayed  him with chilling accuracy.

Claus moved to London; Sunny remained in a coma. For 28 years. Finally, her story is over. So goodbye, Sunny von Bulow. I wish you peace. More than you ever had in this life.

RELATED:  I Saved Claus von Bulow by Andrea Reynolds
I Killed Sunny von Bulow by Suzy Welch

Lynn Sherr is a former ABC News correspondent, author of Failure Is Impossible: Susan B. Anthony in Her Own Words and Tall Blondes, a book about giraffes. She is also co-editor of Peter Jennings: A Reporter's Life. At ABC’s 20/20 news program, Sherr specialized in women's issues and social change, as well as investigative reports. Her most recent book, a memoir—Outside the Box: My Unscripted Life of Love, Loss and Television News—is just out in paperback.