Who Murdered Sunny von Bülow? Exploring the Inspiration for the Latest True Crime Series

Universal Cable Productions will explore the most notorious attempted murder trial of the 1980s.


We’ve speculated heavily about the recent wave of in-depth “true crime” programming coming to television. The latest news — following the ratings boom of The People v. O.J. Simpson and the announcement of a second season of Making a Murderer — is that a new Universal Cable Productions series based on the Sunny von Bülow case is currently in the development stages. It’s one of the most high-profile, upper-crust murder trials in American history, and the ambiguous events surrounding it have been the source of much speculation. The case is the potential subject of a new fictionalized series scripted by Ilene Rosenzweig, whose main claim to fame is the Bravo show Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce

The von Bülow case follows in the vein of Andrew Jarecki’s miniseries The Jinx in that its central subject hails from a very wealthy and powerful family. Sunny was an heiress to a gas and utilities fortune, and her British-born husband, Claus, was a self-made lawyer and businessman who had worked in the oil business. The von Bülows had not be getting along, and when Sunny was rendered unconscious and subsequently stuck in a vegetative state in 1980, Claus was suspected of shooting her with insulin in an attempt to kill her. The case was brought against him by Sunny’s two children from a previous marriage.

The circumstances of the trial and its aftermath feature some direct overlap with the O.J. trial. After being convicted in 1982, Mr. von Bülow appealed the charge with the help of Harvard professor and lawyer Alan Dershowitz. This was one of the cases that helped make Dershowitz such a notorious defense lawyer — the “most famous lawyer in the world,” as John Travolta laments in American Crime Story. Dershowitz managed to get von Bülow a retrial, and, eventually, acquitted in 1984.

The shocking case inspired a 1990 TV movie starring Jeremy Irons and Glenn Close, but UCP’s new show looks to go deeper. The Hollywood Reporter reports that the series will “pull from court transcripts and interviews with those involved in a bid to present an unparalleled behind-the-scenes look into the legal proceedings as well as the couple’s private lives.” Its primary source material is an in-depth book on the history of the family and the original trial published by William Wright, the noted American novelist, playwright, and nonfiction writer. Dershowitz’s own book on the trial will no doubt also be in play, but unlike the TV film, it will not be the central text.

The book aims to be impartial, but one wonders how the show will slant. As with O.J. and Durst, the commonly accepted idea with “The von Bülow Affair” is that Claus got away with attempted murder. The years since the trial would make interesting fodder for a series, as well: Sunny’s daughters forced Claus to give up his share of Sunny’s fortune, and broke ties with him and his child with Sunny, Cosima. Sunny, herself, remained unresponsive on life support, until she died from natural causes in 2008.

There’s a lot of compelling material here, but it remains to be seen if the treatment of it will be tasteful and something more than generic. Will it be empty, tabloid-transcribing sensationalism, or actually attempt to make some interesting, broader claims? There are certainly opportunities to explore medical ethics, as well as the classist workings of the criminal justice system, with this story. It’s just a sketch of an idea, but The Von Bülow Affair, if followed through with, could be a make-or-break moment for the new, prestige-y school of “true crime.”

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