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Samuel Sheppard

Samuel Holmes Sheppard, a 30-year-old physician from Cleveland, Ohio, was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of his pregnant wife, Marilyn Sheppard, in a trial marked by extensive prejudicial media coverage. After serving nearly ten years in prison, Sheppard’s conviction was overturned, and in 1966, he was acquitted upon retrial.
Sheppard had been married for nine years in the summer of 1954, and the couple had a 7-year-old son and a second child on the way. They lived in Bay Village, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland, in a house on the shore of Lake Erie. The Sheppards were a prominent local family, and both Marilyn and Sheppard were involved in the community and led active social lives.
On the night of July 3, 1954, the Sheppards entertained two neighborhood friends, Don and Nancy Ahern. After dinner, the foursome retired to the living room where Sheppard fell asleep on the couch. The Aherns left at approximately 12:30 a.m., at which time Marilyn went to sleep in the upstairs bedroom while Sheppard slept on the couch. The night had been peaceful, and the Aherns would later recount Marilyn’s and Sheppard’s affectionate behavior toward one another, with Marilyn sitting on Sheppard’s lap.
Shortly before 6:00 a.m. on the morning of July 4, Bay Village’s mayor, Spencer Houk, received a phone call from Sheppard. Sheppard urged Houk to get over to his house saying, “I think they have killed Marilyn.” Mayor Houk and his wife Esther arrived at Sheppard’s home shortly thereafter, finding him shirtless and clad in soaking wet pants; his face was bruised and swollen.
Esther went upstairs to the bedroom. Sheppard’s desk drawers had been removed and the contents of his medical bag were strewn across the floor. Esther found bloodstains on the floor, the walls, and the bedspread. Pools of blood surrounded Marilyn’s body, which lay on her bed. Her pajama top was rolled up around her neck and her face was covered with cuts. A coroner determined that Marilyn had suffered 35 separate wounds, most on her face and head. She had been bludgeoned to death.
After arriving at Sheppard’s home, Mayor Houk called the Bay Village police and Sheppard’s brother Richard.. Richard, who was also a doctor, briefly examined Marilyn’s body upon his arrival to see if anything could be done to save her, but he could only confirm that she was dead. The Cleveland police, the coroner and Sheppard’s other brother, Steve, then arrived at the scene. The two brothers examined Sheppard’s injuries and brought him to the family’s nearby clinic to be treated for his neck injury. Newspapers later reported that the brothers took Sheppard away to avoid interrogation, but the police at the scene made no objections when he left, and they were able to question Sheppard three times later that same day.
According to Sheppard’s account of the night, the first thing he remembered after falling asleep was being awakened by a cry from his wife. He hurried upstairs to the bedroom, and in the dim light he could see a white, bushy-haired person standing next to the bed where his wife had been sleeping. Sheppard claims he struggled with the person and was knocked unconscious after being struck on the back of his neck. Before losing consciousness, Sheppard reported having heard moans as if from an injured person.
Once he regained consciousness, Sheppard checked on his wife and, after taking her pulse, determined that she was dead. He then proceeded to his son’s room and found him unharmed. At this point, Sheppard ran downstairs after hearing a noise coming from the first floor where he saw the intruder running out the door. He followed and the two struggled by the lakeshore, where Sheppard was knocked unconscious again. When he came to, he was lying face down on the beach. He returned to the house where he checked his wife’s pulse again and then called Mayor Houk.
The biased media reports began almost immediately, shrouding Sheppard in suspicion from the beginning. On July 7, the day of Marilyn’s funeral, a newspaper story featured Assistant County Attorney John J. Mahon—who would become the chief prosecutor in Sheppard’s trial—criticizing the Sheppard family’s refusal to permit his immediate questioning. The day of the murder, Sheppard was interrogated by Cleveland police officers who asked Sheppard to take a lie detector test. Sheppard declined, either saying that such tests were unreliable or that he was too upset for such a test to be reliable. The newspaper played up Sheppard’s refusal, publishing a front-page story on July 9 entitled “Doctor Balks at Lie Test” and later reporting that other possible suspects had been cleared by lie detector tests.
On July 20, the Cleveland Press ran an editorial written by its editor, Louis B. Seltzer, entitled “Getting Away With Murder.” The article ran on the top of the front page and urged the people involved with the case to end the “nonsense of artificial politeness.” The next day, a headline in the Press read “Why No Inquest? Do It Now, Dr. Gerber,” and hours later, the coroner, Samuel Gerber, called an inquest and subpoenaed Sheppard.
The three-day inquest began on July 22, 1954 and was staged in a local gymnasium to allow for a large crowd. Sheppard’s lawyer was not allowed to participate, and when he attempted to introduce evidence, he was ejected. Sheppard was questioned for five and one-half hours about his actions on the night of the murder, his married life and his love affair with a Bay View Hospital employee named Susan Hayes. In the following days, more headlines aroused suspicion of Sheppard. One article by Seltzer was published on July 30, 1954 asking “Why Isn’t Sam Sheppard in Jail?” That night, July 30, Sheppard was arrested for murder at his father’s home. A crowd of newscasters, photographers and reporters awaited Sheppard at the Bay Village City Hall.
On August 17, 1954, the grand jury indicted Sheppard. Before the trial, 75 people were called in as potential jurors. All three Cleveland newspapers published the names and addresses of the 75 people, resulting in anonymous telephone calls and letters, as well as calls from friends, to all of the prospective jurors regarding the pending case. During the jury selection process, every juror except one testified to having read about the case in the Cleveland newspapers or to having heard broadcasts about it; seven of the 12 jurors who would end up determining the verdict had one or more Cleveland newspapers delivered to their homes.
On October 18, Sheppard’s trial began in Cleveland. On the first day, the jury visited the scene of the murder, while hundreds of reporters and onlookers stood by. One news media representative was allowed to accompany the jury while it inspected Sheppard’s home. The first witness brought to the stand was Dr. Lester Adelson, the man who had performed the autopsy on Marilyn’s body. He presented photographs of Marilyn’s dead body. Upon cross-examination, Sheppard’s defense attorney, William Corrigan, worked to discredit Adelson’s testimony by establishing that the autopsy on Marilyn’s body had been perfunctory and omitted tests that are generally considered essential in a homicide case; the autopsy report contained errors which, though not vital on their own, could suggest other errors by the experts; and the State had failed to determine the nature of the weapon used to kill Marilyn.
During the trial, the first policeman who had entered the bedroom where the murder took place testified that there was no sign of a struggle or of forcible entry. He claimed there was no blood on the desk or pulled out drawers or on the knob of the door leading outside toward the lake. The assumption was that the murderer would have had blood on himself so that when he attempted to leave the house as Sheppard claimed he did, he would have gotten blood on the door knob. Coroner Gerber testified that the weapon used to kill Marilyn was a surgical tool, though this was never proven since the murder weapon was never found. Also, the imprint on the pillow that Gerber claimed was made by a specific surgical tool could not be proven to have been made specifically by this tool.
The prosecution brought Susan Hayes to the stand. Hayes testified that she had been involved in an extramarital affair with Sheppard since she began work as a lab technician at Bay View Hospital in 1951. During the inquest, Sheppard had denied having a romantic relationship with Hayes, a fact that the prosecution used to suggest that if he would lie to protect Hayes, he would certainly lie under oath to protect himself.
Sheppard himself testified at his trial and retold the events of the night as he remembered them.  While on the stand, Sheppard was asked by his attorney to recount the various times he had told his story. Sheppard had recounted the events of the night multiple times: on the scene of the murder that morning, to investigating officers later that day, in a statement to the prosecutor, and at the inquest on July 22. His story had remained largely consistent each time. Sheppard also testified that it was his and Marilyn’s habit to leave their door unlocked while they were home, explaining how an intruder could have entered without having to break in.
Under cross-examination, the state attempted to suggest that Sheppard’s marriage to Marilyn was on the rocks and that he had killed Marilyn so he could be with Hayes. Sheppard admitted that although Marilyn had become less interested in sex after the birth of their first child, he had never once considered divorcing her. Testimonies from other witnesses corroborated this statement, including that of the Aherns, who said that Sheppard and Marilyn had been affectionate the night of the murder. During cross-examination, Sheppard willingly admitted to his relationship with Hayes and to his flirtations with other women. His testimony regarding the details of his relationship with Hayes were consistent, including the reference to the five days he and Hayes spent at a hotel in California in March 1954. Sheppard admitted to having lied about his relationship with Hayes during the inquest, stating that it had been an attempt to protect her reputation. Sheppard had admitted to his sexual intimacies with Hayes and his flirtations with other women, but there was no clear connection between these facts and a motive to kill Marilyn.
Factors other than witness testimony played a key role in shaping the case against Sheppard. The trial began two weeks before an election in which both the judge and the chief prosecutor were candidates for judgeships. Reportedly, the judge openly expressed bias against Sheppard before the trial began. He was quoted as saying in reference to Sheppard, “He’s guilty as hell. There’s no question about it.” Also, a court clerk stated that the judge had commented that “Sam Sheppard was as guilty as he (the judge) was innocent.” Moreover, the judge denied various requests by the counsel for a continuance, change of venue, mistrial and interrogation of the jurors regarding their exposure to publicity surrounding the case. The jurors, who were supposed to be sequestered, were allowed to make phone calls during their deliberations.
The entire trial lasted nine weeks, and the media coverage was extensive and incredibly biased. On December 21, 1954, the jury found Sheppard guilty of second-degree murder, and the judge sentenced him to life in prison with the possibility of parole after ten years. This conviction was confirmed by the Court of Appeals of Cuyahoga County and by the Ohio Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court denied Sheppard’s request for discretionary review.
The authorities had held the key to the Sheppards’ home during the trial, so Sheppard’s attorneys were not able to gather evidence until after the trial had concluded. The defense hired Dr. Paul Leland Kirk, a nationally known criminologist from the University of California, to search the house. Among his findings, he determined that the killer was left-handed based on the blood spatter—Sheppard was right-handed—and that a large spot of blood on the closet door matched neither Sheppard’s nor Marilyn’s blood. The defense petitioned for a new trial based on this newly discovered evidence, but the trial court denied the motion on May 9, 1955.
Over the next nine years, multiple appeals and petitions made by Sheppard and his counsel were denied. Finally, on July 15, 1964, the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of Ohio ruled that Sheppard was denied a fair trial based on five separate violations to his constitutional right to due process:  1) failure to grant a change of venue or a continuance in view of the newspaper publicity before the trial; 2) inability of maintaining impartial jurors because of the publicity during the trial; 3) failure of the trial judge to disqualify himself although there was uncertainty as to his impartiality; 4) improper introduction of lie detector testimony; and 5) unauthorized communications to the jury during their deliberations. The Court stated that in light of these errors, each of which on its own would be sufficient to reach the decision that a fair trial had not been granted, the trial could only be viewed as a “mockery of justice.”
In this ruling, Judge Carl A. Weinman granted Sheppard’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus and declared that since Sheppard’s conviction had been unconstitutionally obtained, it was now void. Judge Weinman gave the State or Cuyahoga County 60 days in which to hold a new trial and ordered Sheppard’s immediate release on $10,000 bond. The next day, July 16, 1964, Sheppard was released from prison.
A week after his release, Sheppard appeared in front of a three-judge panel from the U.S. Court of Appeals in Akron, Ohio, who decided to allow Sheppard to remain free on bail while awaiting the State’s appeal of Judge Weinman’s decision. A few months later, on October 8, Sheppard again faced a three-judge panel—this time in the Sixth Circuit Federal Court of Appeals in Cincinnati. The hearing lasted two hours, but the decision did not come until May 5, 1965, at which point the panel ruled to overturn Judge Weinman’s granting of the writ of habeas corpus and ordered that Sheppard be returned to prison within 20 days unless he could obtain a continuance.
The U.S. Supreme Court announced in November 1965 that it would hear Sheppard’s appeal. Upon review, the Court reversed the judgment, concluding that Sheppard did not receive a fair trial consistent with the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court remanded the case to the District Court.
Sheppard’s retrial began on October 24, 1966. Judge Francis Talty ordered all photographers and cameramen to stay outside the building and he barred reporters from obtaining any information about the trial other than what happened in court. F. Lee Bailey, Sheppard’s defense counsel, presented a detailed and diagrammed description of how the murderer had swung the weapon with his left hand and described the large blood spot on the closet door that had been left by someone other than the Sheppards. Also testifying on Sheppard’s behalf was Dr. Richard Koch, who testified that two of Sheppard’s teeth had been broken and his mouth badly cut, damage that he said Sheppard could not have inflicted upon himself. An osteopathic doctor testified that he found a fracture in Sheppard’s vertebra and a bruise on his spinal cord when he examined him two days after the murder, which was also damage Sheppard could not have inflicted upon himself.
The jury began deliberations on November 16, 1966 and returned a verdict of not guilty the same day.
Free after ten years in prison, Sheppard struggled to get his life back. In 1967, the Ohio Medical Board returned Sheppard’s license to practice. Within months of his joining the staff at a hospital in Youngstown, Ohio, Sheppard was sued for malpractice in the death of a patient. He attempted a short-lived career as a wrestler under the name The Killer, and he began abusing drugs and alcohol. On April 6, 1970, Sheppard was found dead in his home, the cause of death determined to be an overdose of pills combined with liquor.
Sheppard’s son, Sam Reese Sheppard, continues to work on his father’s behalf. He tried to have his father legally declared innocent and has worked to help children who were affected by crime and punishment issues and to promote prison reform.
The question still remains as to who murdered Marilyn Sheppard. It was suggested by the Sheppard family’s attorney that a man named Richard Eberling killed Marilyn. Eberling had been a handyman and window washer for the Sheppards, and one of Marilyn’s rings was allegedly found in his possession near the time of the murder. Eberling died in prison in 1998 while serving a life sentence for the murder of another Ohio woman. DNA testing was conducted on Eberling’s blood, but the results were inconclusive.
– Researched by Bridget McCarthy
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Reported Crime Date:1954
Age at the date of crime:30
Contributing Factors: