The Claus von Bulow Case
As a renowned professor at arguably the nation's preeminent law school, Dershowitz has resources at his disposal that most lawyers can only dream of. He has students eager to work with an acknowledged master; he has staff attorneys and access to experts. But in the end, a great appellate lawyer must stand up in court, make the arguments, answer the questions and make the case for his or her client alone.
On March 15, 1983, a year after von Bülow hired Dershowitz, the appeals team filed its brief. "It was the longest and most complex brief I had ever written, consisting of more than 50,000 words," Dershowitz wrote. "But then again, this was the longest criminal trial in Rhode Island history." The von Bülow team pulled no punches, leading off with the statement that "Claus von Bülow is facing 30 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Unable to accept the reality that Martha [Sunny] von Bülow may have destroyed herself, her wealthy family hired a private prosecutor to conduct a vendetta against her husband..."
In the brief, Sunny was described as "a self-destructive, deeply depressed, and addictive woman who experimented with drugs not prescribed for her, and who continued to engage in life-threatening behavior after experiencing life-threatening emergencies and after being warned by doctors to desist."
The brief also argued that Kuh's notes should have been turned over to the defense and that the search and seizure of the black bag was unconstitutional.
As an example of how Kuh's notes had been misused, the brief cited the situation involving Sunny's chauffeur, who testified that he often stopped at pharmacies and at doctors' offices for Sunny. As a rebuttal witness, the prosecution had called Kuh, who interviewed the chauffeur and was able to use the notes to point out inconsistencies in his testimony.
The brief also claimed that the state was thus allowed to use the claim of attorney-client privilege as "a shield against disclosing information when the disclosure might have helped the defense, and as a sword against the defense when disclosure might serve his clients' and the prosecutors' tactical interests."
Rhode Island prosecutors answered with a 101-page brief as to why justice had been served in the case, and the defense answered with its rebuttal. In most cases, the appeal-response-rebuttal routine is the end, giving the defense the last word, but in this case the Rhode Island Supreme Court allowed the prosecution to give a response to Dershowitz's rebuttal.
Briefs help the judges understand the background, facts and law, but it is in oral arguments that appeals are won and lost. In mid-October 1983, amid a frenzy of media activity — this was the first time the Rhode Island Supreme Court had ever allowed television cameras in its courtroom — Dershowitz stepped to the lectern in the ornate courtroom of Rhode Island's highest court to argue for Claus von Bülow's life.
Von Bülow was in his 60s at the time, so a 30-year stretch would have been the equivalent of life. In addition, knowing his wealth, the Rhode Island Mafia had already made it clear that von Bülow would have to pay them $1,000 a week to remain alive in the state pen.
The man at the center of this storm was not in the courtroom the day of oral arguments. Von Bülow watched the events unfold on television at a nearby hotel.
Dershowitz's oral arguments were strong. His manner apparently grated on one justice, who snapped at him from the bench, but his facts and reasoning were hard to counter. He concluded by requesting that the high court "grant Claus von Bülow the tools necessary to establish the whole truth — a new trial with full access to all available information at which the whole truth and not a version edited by interested parties can be heard."