Dr. Dal Cortivo's expert testimony created vast doubt as to how the needle might have become encrusted. A theory that the encrusted needle had been deliberately dipped into insulin was now a considered possibility.
Alan Dershowitz’s team also produced evidence of Sunny's excessive drug use, including testimony by more than ten of Sunny's friends. Ultimately the jury sided with the defense. Von Bulow was acquitted in 1985.
The trials of Claus von Bulow were among the most popular of the 1980s and led to media frenzy. News media from around the world were irresistibly drawn to the drama of the case.
Alan Dershowitz wrote a book about the trail titled “Reversal of Fortune” which was later turned into a feature film. Jeremy Irons won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Claus von Bulow in the film.
Dr. Dal Cortivo was referenced by Mr. Dershowitz in his book. However, only Dr. Dal Cortivo’s professional title, not his name, was used in the film.
Although the case was settled, many still speculate about the guilt or innocence of Claus von Bulow. After the appeal trail concluded, a civil suit was filed against Claus von Bulow by his stepchildren.
The civil suit was settled in 1987 with a stipulation of Claus agreeing to a divorce from Sunny. The divorce was granted in 1988.
Sunny spent the rest of her life in a persistent vegetative state. She died in December 2007 at the age of 76. Sunny’s death came 27 years, 11 months and 15 days after she was found unconscious on the floor of her bathroom in her mansion in Newport, Rhode Island, on Dec. 21, 1980.
Claus von Bulow now lives in London.
In December 1980, while celebrating Christmas with her family at their mansion in Newport, Rhode Island, Sunny Von Bulow displayed confusion and a lack of coordination. She was put to bed by her family. The next morning she was discovered unconscious, lying on the bathroom floor. Something had caused Sunny to suffer a severe brain injury to produce a persistent vegetative state. Although clinical features resembled a drug overdose, some of the laboratory evidence suggested hypoglycemia.
Prior to the incident, Sunny and her husband Claus von Bulow’s relationship suffered with increasing marital tension. After the incident left Sunny in a vegetative state; her children were suspicious that Sunny’s brain injury was the result of foul play by Claus. Sunny's two eldest children prompted an investigation of the possibility Claus had attempted the murder of their mother. After the gathering of evidence, Rhode Island prosecutors presented the case to a grand jury. Claus was charged with two counts of attempted murder. The trial began in February 1982.
Evidence presented by the prosecution consisted of circumstantial evidence, indications of financial motive, extensive testimony by various household staff, doctors and personal exercise trainers. The prosecution also presented a black bag with drugs and a used syringe, reported to contain traces of insulin, found in Claus von Bulow's mansion. This syringe would soon become known as the “Encrusted Needle.” A Harvard endocrinologist testified that her brain damage was the result of injected insulin. The jury was also convinced and Claus was convicted.
Claus von Bulow then hired Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz to lead his appeal efforts, and Thomas Puccio as his lead defense attorney for his appeal trial. At the second trial, the defense team relied on the testimony of world-renowned medical experts; one of which was Dr. Leo A. Dal Cortivo. The medical experts testified that Sunny's two comas were not caused by insulin, but by a combination of ingested (not injected) drugs, alcohol and her chronic health conditions.
During his testimony, Dr. Leo Dal Cortivo firmly dismissed the possibility of the “encrusted needle” presented at the trial as being used to inject Sunny with insulin. Dr. Dal Cortivo explained to the jury that the hypodermic used was of the type which employed a separate vial. This type of hypodermic would not have come into contact with any insulin except through its hollow body and tiny aperture at the point. If insulin was injected using this type of hypodermic, any residue on the needle would be wiped off by the skin as it was being withdrawn from the body. Dr. Dal Cortivo then proceeded with a practical demonstration for the jury (as seen in the video below on the left).