December 8th, 2008
06:14 PM ET

Sunny is gone, but the mystery lives on

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/CRIME/12/08/von.bulow.obit/art.von.bulow.file.cnn.jpg caption="Sunny von Bulow is pictured during her 1957 wedding to Prince Alfred von Auersperg."]
Susan Candiotti
CNN National Correspondent

When we got word on Saturday that Martha “Sunny” von Bulow had died after nearly 28 years in a coma, many of us reacted the same way. Sadly, we thought she had already passed away long ago.

Sunny von Bulow and her husband Claus were household names back in the 1980’s when he was charged with trying to kill her by slipping her drugs. The alleged motive: money.

She fell into a coma in December, 1982 and never awoke. The wealthy, beautiful heiress was 76 years old when she died after being in a persistent vegetative state in a hospital and then a nursing home all these years. Her husband was tried and convicted of attempted murder, appealed, and then was acquitted after a second trial.

What’s really intriguing is that people are still split over the case.

Maybe the movie “Reversal of Fortune” starring Glenn Close and Jeremy Irons has something to do with it. The movie was released in 1990, but it left audiences wondering what really happened.

The movie was based on the book by the same title written by Claus von Bulow’s lawyer Alan Dershowitz. He says Irons’ portrayal of Claus was not especially sympathetic. To this day, he says complete strangers still ask him: did von Bulow really do it? I asked Dershowitz what he tells them. He told me, ‘I tell them the jury’s (second) verdict was absolutely correct.” Dershowitz believes Sunny’s coma was self-induced. Period.

Writer Dominick Dunne who traveled in some of the same society circles when Sunny was alive remains unconvinced that we’ll ever know what really happened. He had always sided with prosecutors.

In his Manhattan apartment Saturday, Dunne told me he recently ran into Sunny’s ex in London not long ago. They hadn’t seen each other since 1985. He said they locked eyes, and von Bulow stared him down and turned away.

And then he gave me a little insight about how Claus von Bulow was treated by some in high society during the first trial. At the time, Dunne says Bulow was dating and the couple was the toast of the town. Dunne says nothing changed after the guilty verdict and von Bulow remained free on bond. But after the second trial when he was acquitted, believe it or not, Dunne says the social circles dropped von Bulow like a hot potato.

“Don’t you find that fascinating?” You bet I do.

Regardless, both Dunne and Dershowitz agree on one thing. Sunny von Bulow’s life was tragic.

Dershowitz says he stays in touch with his former client who lives in London and writes theatre and book reviews. Dershowitz called him Saturday after learning of Sunny’s death. He said von Bulow was “very sad.”

Her case is one of those that had it all—high society, fabulous wealth, beauty, a scandalous trial, Hollywood and now death, just a few weeks shy of the 28th year after Sunny von Bulow lapsed into a coma.

Filed under: Crime & Punishment • Susan Candiotti
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