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12.09.08

I Killed Sunny von Bulow

Forget about Claus—26 years after the first von Bulow trial, the author still feels guilty about how she covered the case.

Back when I was a girl reporter at the Associated Press, a mere 24 and full of what used to be called spit and vinegar, I was assigned to cover the first Claus von Bulow trial in Newport with the Boston bureau’s entourage. It was a plum assignment, and I will never forget how I donned a frilly pink dress when I set off the first day, as if I was attending a garden party. I wasn’t all wrong. The scene at the courthouse was part bash and part melee, with media types from around the world flocking in to record the crimes of the rich and famous with predictably giddy schadenfreude.

Each day, I sat dutifully in the press box, reporter’s notebook clutched tightly in my hand, furiously scribbling notes. Then, at every break, I would rush with the rest of the pack to a line of pay phones to call in my wry observations. Claus’ grimacing façade, the pained expressions of Sunny’s children, the posturing of the high-priced lawyers. It was gorgeous theater.

Doesn’t every one of us have a Sunny in our lives? Doesn’t every one of us have a still-just-barely-there reminder that time moves on, but our biggest personal tragedies never leave us?

At the end of each session, I would speed home in my little Toyota Tercel to the home base, where the editors were frantically moving our text to hungry newspapers near and far. We all felt very important, and I loved the rush of bursting in the door of the bureau to the admiring looks of staff members who were stuck inside, processing what those of us on the front lines were actually living real time.

One day, though, I returned to work only to be greeted with deadly silence. The usually effusive copy desk editor caught my eye, then furtively looked away. A photo desk technician, a 20-something I counted as a pal, also looked my way, face aghast, then dashed off. I immediately sensed something was very wrong.

And it was. Within moments, the bureau chief summoned me into his glassed-in office, and pointed for me to sit down. His normally placid face was pained, his jaw line rigid. He was fuming.

“You killed Sunny von Bulow,” he said tersely.

“What?” I cried.

“You killed her—look.” He held up a scroll of yellow paper, the kind that came right off the AP machine, and waved it at me. I could see my byline with its story beneath. Seething, he then read the first line, carefully enunciating words I knew I had called in only hours earlier.

I listened—stricken—but still didn’t get the problem.

“…Claus von Bulow’s murder trial,” my boss repeated several times to make his point. “ Murder trial. Murder trial. Murder trial.”

“Yes?” I said, utterly perplexed.

“It’s attempted murder! For God’s sake, Suzy,” my boss said, lifting out of his seat. “ The poor woman’s not dead.”

Look, I was young. What I said next has haunted me for years. “I mean, she’s as good as dead,” I said. “Her coma is irreversible, you know. She’s not coming back.”

“Oh, are you God?” my boss asked dryly. And then he dismissed me with a wave of his hand. As I was walking out the door, he added one last comment. “You could be fired for this,” he said. “You won’t be. But you could be.”

Back among my colleagues in the newsroom, the silence was deafening. Finally, the copy desk editor gestured me over. He too showed me a scroll of yellow AP paper. Printed over and over again were the words every reporter dreaded to see. “KILL DELETE ALERT,” it read. My story was being expunged from the record.

For the next week, I was assigned to local fires and drug arrests. Indeed, it was only when Claus von Bulow’s trial ended that I was sent back to Newport, to cover the reaction on the city’s street corners and in its little diners.

I thought of my premature elimination of poor Sunny when the news broke Sunday that God did finally have his way with her. How wrong, I wondered, had I really been?

The answer, I’m sad to say, is very. By not dying Sunny had been a living testament to one family’s unfinished agony. The von Bulow clan may be a world apart from most of us, but Sunny’s lingering made them seem just like everyone else, perpetual victims of past mistakes and misunderstandings. Surely by not being gone, everything she represented could not be forgotten. Doesn’t every one of us have a Sunny in our lives? Doesn’t every one of us have a still-just-barely-there reminder that time moves on, but our biggest personal tragedies never leave us?

For years, I have used my KILL DELETE episode as a funny cocktail party story. But for me, it has also served as an indelible aide-memoir. Twenty-eight years have rushed by since she fell into her permanent sleep. Still, I have never forgotten that in my youth, I thought the difference between life and death was piddling. Now a mother, wife, and daughter of aging parents, with the regrets, scars, and fears to match, I know much better.

RELATED: I Saved Claus von Bulow by Andrea Reynolds
Covering the Sunny von Bulow Trial by Lynn Sherr

Suzy Welch, a noted commentator and business journalist, is the former editor of the Harvard Business Review and has written extensively on management and leadership.