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PART TWO: Martha “Sunny” Crawford . . . A Privileged Life, A Mysterious Death

A mysterious coma, Claus is accused of attempted homicide.

By Jeffrey Calta

While at the hospital in December, 1979, doctors analyzed Sunny’s blood and found evidence of high levels of insulin. The doctors finally concluded that Sunny was hypoglycemic and excess sweets or too long without food could have caused the sudden illness. Sunny’s personal servant, Maria Schrallhammer, suspected foul play as Claus had objected to Sunny being brought to the hospital. Her suspicion was enhanced when she discovered a “black bag” belonging to Claus. It contained a vial of Valium and secobarital in a paste form which could only have come from an illicit source. Later that year, Maria had found Claus’ “black bag” again this time with syringes and a vial marked insulin. She told Sunny’s son Alexander about the discovery. He was surprised at this news as Sunny was not known to be diabetic.

The 1980 Christmas holiday season was again shared by Sunny and Claus in Newport RI. They had an early meal on the night of Dec 21th. Sunny felt weak afterwards and retired for the evening. Her family had breakfast at 11 am the next morning and Sunny did not join them. This was not unusual as she often slept late. Alexander found her unconscious in her bed and cold to the touch. Sunny was rushed to the Newport hospital where she suffered cardiac arrest. CAT scans indicated she was in an irreversible coma. She would never regain consciousness.

The family was unsure of what to do now. Claus stood to inherit Sunny’s fortune and the family was suspicious of Claus’ lack of concern during the 1979 hospital stay. Also, Claus wanted Sunny removed from life support although her children opposed it. Sunny’s children hired an attorney, Richard Kuh, a former district attorney in New York. Kuh collected testimony and especially the “black bag” as evidence of the attempted murder. Kuh submitted the information to Rhode Island State police and on July 6, 1981 a grand jury indicted Claus von Bulow on two counts of attempted murder of his wife Sunny.

The trial of Claus von Bulow began in February, 1982. This was a case that had all of the ingredients for a media event, a socialite trying to murder his wife to collect her money and the side attraction of Claus’s girlfriend, Alexandra Isles. The jury deliberated for 4 days and found Claus guilty on both counts of attempted murder.

Claus von Bulow hired appellate lawyer Alan Dershowitz to begin an appeal process and a second trial was granted. Several witnesses were introduced including Truman Capote and Joanne Carson (wife of comedian Johnny Carson) that testified that Sunny had used IV drugs and knew how to use a syringe properly. In addition, inconsistencies in the prosecution evidence were revealed. This time the jury found Claus innocent on both counts. Although he was found innocent, Claus’s problems continued after the trial. Claus dropped his claim to Sunny’s fortune and he would always carry the stigma that he might have caused her coma.

Alan Dershowitz wrote a book titled Reversal of Fortune about the von Bulow trial. That book became the basis for a 1990 Hollywood film of the same name starring Jeremy Irons as Claus while Glenn Close portrayed Sunny. Mr. Irons won the 1991 Academy Award for Best Actor in a Motion Picture for his portrayal of Claus.

Sunny lingered in a coma until she passed away in December, 2008 at age 76. Claus passed away in 2019 at the age of 92.

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