IF ONLY ONE adjective could be used to describe this account of the Claus von Bu low case, the word would have to be "manipulative." How could it be otherwise? The two central figures, von Bulow himself and attorney-author Alan M. Dershowitz, are both -- albeit in quite different ways -- master manipulators of opinion and emotion.
Von Burse, enjoys the dubious distinction of having achieved celebrity status solely by virtue of having been twice tried for the attempted murder of his wife Sunny. (She still lies in an irreversible coma in a New York Hospital.)
During and after his trials, von Bu low managed to project the image of an above-it-all Old World aristocrat -- in spite of decidedly un-Old Worldish activities like posing for magazine pictures with his current live-in lover in the Fifth Avenue apartment he once occupied with his wife.
Dershowitz is unquestionably one of the most brilliant criminal and constitutional lawyers in the nation. After von Bu low was found guilty at his first trial, Dershowitz -- who has frequently served as the last resort for criminal defendants in deep trouble -- took over his appeal. The conviction was set aside on appeal and von Bu low was then acquitted at his second trial of the charge that he tried to murder his heiress wife by injecting her with insulin.
As every casual television viewer or peruser of supermarket tabloids knows, von Bu low was having a love affair with Alexandra Isles, a former soap opera actress, before his wife Sunny sank into her coma at the end of 1979. Isles had threatened to break off the affair if Claus did not divorce Sunny. Claus' standard of living depended on his wife's fortune, and he also stood to lose the $14 million she had provided for him in her will if they divorced.
Dershowitz, who did not try von Bu low's case in court but was the chief legal strategist for his second and successful defense, cleverly -- and correctly -- points out that the coincidences of air-tight detective drama do not necessarily prove guilt in real life.
Quoting Chekhov's dictum that "if in the first act you hang a pistol on the wall, then in the last act, it must be shot off," Dershowitz notes that "guns hung on the walls of real homes are likely to remain there as unused decorations."
He is far too good an attorney to remind the reader that there is a considerable difference, in both law and logic, between one coincidence and a string of coincidences. A gun hanging on the wall in a house where someone has died a violent death may be an unfortunate coincidence.
If the occupants have made previous threats to kill each other, that is another coincidence. If the gun has been fired but wiped clean of fingerprints, that's still another coincidence. There is a point -- and any good defense lawyer tries to avoid reaching that point in court -- where the weight of too many coincidences strikes a jury as proof.
In von Bulow's second trial, Dershowitz's strategy enabled the defense to avoid reaching the point where coincidences solidify into proof. One important defense move persuaded the judge to rule out the detailed evidence, presented at the first trial by Sunny's personal banker, of how much Claus stood to gain financially by her death and how much he stood to lose by a divorce.
Another, even more critical move was the introduction of new medical testimony calling into question the premise that Sunny's coma had been caused by insulin injection.
As a commentary on the criminal justice system, this book adds little to dozens of other works by outstanding lawyers (including Dershowitz's own The Best Defense). It is hardly news that the outcome of any criminal case rests not on raw "facts" but on the way the facts are "edited" by the judge, prosecutor and defense attorney. "Edit" is a word Dershowitz uses frequently, and his account of his own relations with von Bu low is as carefully edited as his account of the legal maneuvering.
Dershowitz insists that although he originally assumed his client was guilty, he became convinced of his innocence in the course of their dealings. Since Dershowitz makes no bones about the fact that most of his clients are guilty, the reader is nudged toward the conclusion that this particular client must therefore have been innocent.
Dershowitz's description of his first meeting with von Bulow is a masterpiece of editing. "As I approached the imposing facade overlooking Central Park, I reflected on the differences in our backgrounds. For my parents from Brooklyn, Fifth Avenue was a tourist attraction, a part of New York City's culture -- to be viewed and appreciated, but not touched or partaken of. Though I had passed by many of the elegant mansions along Fifth Avenue on my way to and from the museums, I had never actually been inside one. Throughout my life, I had never been impressed by wealth."
Get it? Dershowitz is a working-class boy from Brooklyn, and his judgment isn't about to be swayed by an aristocratic facade. In case you miss the point, Dershowitz makes it again when Claus pours him a glass of dry red Bordeaux at lunch.
"I wondered if it was a coincidence or if Claus has somehow found out about my recently acquired taste in wine. (A couple of years earlier, a glass of Manischewitz would have done just fine.)"
The stage is set for the "odd couple" -- a hard-working mensch who only yesterday was drinking Manischewitz and a Danish-born blue-blood who belongs to that segment of society (cruelly designated as "international white trash" or "Eurotrash") in which dubiously titled Europeans go around calling themselves princes and princesses and living off American money.
One particularly distasteful aspect of this book is Dershowitz's frequent implication that von Bulow's original conviction was reversed not because of the excellent technical arguments of his lawyers but because the appellate judges doubted, in their secret hearts, that he was guilty.
That may or may not be true, but Dershowitz is -- once again -- too good a lawyer not to know that judges who truly believe in the Bill of Rights will reverse convictions on technical grounds even if they believe the defendant belongs in the lowest circle of Hell.
Either you believe, as Dershowitz does and as I do, that the Bill of Rights applies to all defendants or you don't believe in the Bill of Rights.
Von Bulow is, of course, legally innocent. Only he knows whether he is morally innocent. His wife, whose brain cells are destroyed, presumably knows nothing.
One thing is certain: We have not heard the last of the von Bu low case. Can a television mini-series be far behind? The real question is why Americans are so fascinated by the fate of dull aristocrats manque's whose lives -- apart from their involvement in a sensational murder case -- seem to consist largely of spending someone else's inherited wealth.