State v. von Bulow

Citation47 A.L.R.4th 455,475 A.2d 995
Decision Date27 April 1984
Docket NumberNo. 82-462-C,82-462-C
PartiesSTATE v. Claus von BULOW. A.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Rhode Island

MURRAY, Justice.

This is an appeal by the defendant, Claus von Bulow, from a Superior Court conviction on two counts of attempting to murder his wife, Martha von Bulow. The indictment was handed down by a Newport County grand jury on July 6, 1981, charging the defendant with two separate counts of assault with intent to murder his wife. The trial commenced in Newport on February 2, 1982, before a justice of the Superior Court and a jury. On March 16, 1982, after six days of deliberation, the jury found the defendant guilty on both counts.

The defendant moved for a judgment of acquittal and a new trial. These motions were denied by the trial justice on March 17 and April 2, 1982, respectively. On May 7, 1982, defendant was sentenced to ten years at the Adult Correctional Institution on the first count and twenty years at the Adult Correctional Institution on the second count, these sentences to be served consecutively. The defendant now appeals from the judgment of conviction entered below.

After a trial spanning six weeks, the record of which includes more than 5200 pages of transcript embodied in twenty-six volumes, Claus von Bulow was found guilty of twice attempting to murder his wife by injecting her with doses of insulin. There were no eyewitnesses to these alleged crimes. Rather, the jury found defendant guilty on the basis of circumstantial evidence.

On December 21, 1980, Martha von Bulow was found in a comatose state on her bathroom floor in the family's Newport home--Clarendon Court. She remains in that condition at a New York hospital. Approximately one year earlier, she suffered a similar episode of unconsciousness from which she quickly recovered. The occurrence of the second coma triggered the events leading up to defendant's indictment, trial, and conviction. Suspecting that defendant may have poisoned his wife, Martha von Bulow's son, Alex; her daughter Ala; and her mother, Mrs. Aitken, hired former Manhattan District Attorney Richard Kuh to investigate the cause of Mrs. von Bulow's condition.

Chronologically, the events that gave rise to the family's suspicion and culminated in its investigation of defendant's possible criminal involvement are essentially as follows.

On December 27, 1979, Martha von Bulow suffered her first coma. On the previous evening, she became weak and uncoordinated and had to be helped to her bedroom by her son Alex. Maria Schrallhammer, Martha von Bulow's personal maid, testified that shortly after nine thirty on the morning of December 27, 1979, she heard Mrs. von Bulow moaning in her bedroom. Upon entering the room, she unsuccessfully attempted to arouse Mrs. von Bulow. Alarmed, she asked defendant to call a doctor, which he refused to do at that time. The defendant did call a doctor, however, at approximately two o'clock that afternoon. The doctor was not in, and defendant left a message. The doctor returned the call about an hour later and defendant relayed to him several of his wife's symptoms.

In this regard, Maria testified that the description of Mrs. von Bulow's condition given by defendant to the doctor was untrue. Specifically, Maria testified that defendant's statements that Mrs. von Bulow had an alcoholic problem and that she had been drinking the night before and had been out of bed that morning were untrue.

At approximately six o'clock that evening, Martha von Bulow's condition worsened. The defendant called the doctor and conveyed to him the severity of her condition. Upon the doctor's arrival, Mrs. von Bulow vomited, began gasping for breath, stopped breathing, and experienced cardiac arrest. The doctor successfully resuscitated her and later testified that she had become comatose a few minutes prior to his arrival. Mrs. von Bulow was transported to Newport Hospital. Blood tests indicated that her blood-sugar level was unusually low. Mrs. von Bulow regained consciousness, recovered, and was discharged on January 2, 1980, with a diagnosis of "broncho-pneumonia * * * cardio-respiratory arrest due to massive aspiration of gastric contents * * * hypoglycemia of undetermined etiology."

Maria Schrallhammer further testified that in February 1980 she found something in the von Bulows' New York apartment which disturbed her. While cleaning a walk-in closet off defendant's bedroom, she noticed a large black traveling bag belonging to defendant. Upon looking inside this bag, she discovered a smaller black bag or pouch (hereinafter referred to as the black bag). Maria removed the black bag, opened it, and examined its contents. Inside the black bag she found three vials--one containing pills, one containing powder, and one containing liquid. She then replaced the black bag and its contents inside the larger traveling bag. Some days or weeks later, Maria returned to the traveling bag, removed the black bag, and again examined its contents. On this occasion she wrote down the information contained on the labels of each vial on three separate pieces of paper.

In November 1980, around Thanksgiving, Maria once again noticed the black bag--this time she found it inside a white canvas bag located on a chair in defendant's bedroom. She again examined the contents of the bag. In addition to the three vials that she had seen previously, she stated that it now contained two or three needles, a syringe, and a small bottle labeled "insulin." Shortly thereafter, she called Alex into the room and showed him the contents of the black bag.

On December 19, 1980, Mr. and Mrs. von Bulow, along with defendant's daughter, Cosima, left New York and traveled to their Newport home where they were met by Alex. Maria testified that on that date she again saw the black bag inside the white canvas bag. She again examined the contents of the bag and found it to be substantially the same as it was in November. Once again she replaced the bag where she had found it and carried the white canvas bag to the elevator to be brought down to the family car for the trip to Rhode Island.

On the evening of December 20, 1980, defendant, Mrs. von Bulow, Alex, and Cosima were driven by the family chauffeur to a local cinema. The family was driven back to Clarendon Court after the movie. Upon their return, Alex accompanied his mother to her bedroom, where they spoke briefly. Martha von Bulow subsequently went into the bathroom, and Alex adjourned to the library. A short time later Mrs. von Bulow joined her son in the library where they continued their conversation.

At some point during the conversation, defendant entered the library and asked his wife if there was anything that she needed. She asked him to bring her some soup, which he did.

Alex testified that after about an hour of conversation he noticed that his mother was experiencing symptoms of weakness and lack of coordination similar to those he had observed the previous December. When she experienced difficulty standing, Alex carried her to her bedroom. Alex then went to his stepfather's study and informed defendant that Mrs. von Bulow was feeling weak. Immediately thereafter, Alex returned to his mother's bedroom. Approximately five minutes later, Mrs. von Bulow emerged from her bathroom and walked to her bed. Alex helped his mother into bed as she was apparently still feeling very weak. A few minutes later, according to Alex's testimony, defendant came into the bedroom. Shortly thereafter, Alex left his mother and defendant alone in the bedroom.

Alex testified further that on the following morning, December 21, 1980, he awoke at approximately eleven o'clock. While dressing and before going downstairs to breakfast, he looked out his window and observed defendant walking back to the house from the ocean. Alex then went downstairs to the dining room. At some point defendant came into the hallway, and Alex asked him whether his mother had gotten out of bed yet. The defendant appeared surprised to hear that his wife might still be in bed and walked toward her room. Alex testified that some ten or fifteen minutes later, defendant returned to the hallway near the dining room and motioned for him to come. Alex followed defendant to his mother's bedroom. Upon entering the room, he walked into the bathroom and discovered his mother lying unconscious on the floor. Alex testified that defendant placed his finger under his wife's nose and determined that she was still breathing. The defendant then left the room, apparently to call a doctor or the rescue squad. A few minutes later, paramedics responded, and Martha von Bulow was taken to Newport Hospital.

On December 22, 1980, Martha von Bulow was moved to Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston. She was later transferred to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York. During the period of time in which she was at the Boston Hospital (approximately three weeks), defendant and Alex alternately traveled to Boston for several days at a time to stay with Mrs. von Bulow. Alex testified that shortly after his mother had been transferred to Boston, he went into defendant's closet at Clarendon Court to look for the black bag. He did not find the bag on that occasion. Several days later, on December 27 or 28, 1980, he again attempted to enter defendant's closet for the purpose of locating the black bag. On this occasion, however, the closet was locked and he made no further effort to gain...

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