The news Thursday that Claus von Bülow had died resonated with Alan Dershowitz, the former Harvard Law School professor, who 35 years ago won an appeal of the socialite’s conviction on charges that he tried to murder his wealthy wife with insulin injections at their Newport, R.I., mansion.
Dershowitz was reminded that von Bülow’s televised appeal ushered in an era of bringing viewers into the courtroom in sensational cases, a prelude to the O.J. Simpson murder trial a decade later.
A second thought was that von Bülow, a native Dane with a love of opera and theater, had lived quietly and largely out of public view since his acquittal at a retrial in 1985. For the last two decades, von Bülow had called London home.
Another reminder was that von Bülow, who told Dershowitz he would kill himself if sentenced to many years in prison, became synonymous with notorious allegations that Dershowitz said had been disproven.
“He made me think about how a man can be defined by false accusations, and that everybody will remember him as somebody who tried to kill his wife,” Dershowitz said.
Von Bülow died Saturday in London at age 92.
Martha “Sunny” von Bülow, his wife, did not recover from a coma suffered during Christmas vacation in 1980. That was the second of successive Christmases when, according to two of her children, Claus von Bülow allegedly attempted to murder her with insulin injections.
Prosecutors said he had sought to secure a $14 million inheritance from her will.
“If you tell anybody the name of Claus von Bülow, that’s what people think of,” Dershowitz said. Martha von Bülow died in 2008 in a nursing home.
Dershowitz recalled that he had put together a defense team that included some of his best law students. Eliot Spitzer, who would later become governor of New York, was part of that team, Dershowitz said.
“It was a major case for me,” Dershowitz said. “We tore apart the case medically and proved that she could not” have been subjected to a deliberate insulin overdose.
“The doctors were mistaken,” he added.
Von Bülow’s conviction, which came with a 30-year prison sentence, was overturned.
“I advised him when we won the case to keep a low profile and disappear from public view,” Dershowitz said.
“I’ve been in touch with Claus over the years,” most recently on a visit to London two years ago, he said.
The former socialite, who had become frail, “lived a quiet and very happy life” in a small apartment in London, Dershowitz said.
“He was physically weak. He couldn’t walk, but he was mentally alert,” he said.
The Harvard professor emeritus added that von Bülow “had an unusual sense of humor,” which Dershowitz described as politically unacceptable.
“He loved to reminisce with me,” Dershowitz added. “He loved my book, but he didn’t love the movie.”
The law professor’s 1986 book, “Reversal of Fortune,” made the case for von Bülow’s innocence. The 1990 movie of the same name, in which actor Jeremy Irons won an Academy Award as von Bülow, left it up to the viewer to determine whether he was guilty, Dershowitz said.
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.