Sheppard, Samuel H.

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Sheppard, Samuel H.

In 1954 a sensational murder trial laid the groundwork for a significant U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the rights of criminal defendants to a fair trial. Dr. Samuel H. Sheppard, a prominent Cleveland osteopath, was convicted of murdering his pregnant wife, Marilyn Sheppard. He was sentenced to life in prison, where he remained before his appeal reached the Supreme Court in 1966. The Court ordered a new trial, which led to Sheppard's eventual acquittal. Sheppard v. Maxwell, 384 U.S. 333, 86 S. Ct. 1507, 16 L. Ed. 2d 600, became the leading case on Pretrial Publicity, shaping how judges have since treated the difficult problem of guaranteeing a defendant a fair trial in the face of massive media attention.

On July 4, 1954, 31-year-old Marilyn Sheppard who was four months pregnant, was bludgeoned to death in the bedroom of the couple's impressive Lake Erie, Pennsylvania home. According to Sheppard, he had been sleeping on a downstairs couch when he heard noises and moans coming from the bedroom where his wife was sleeping. He ran to help her but was knocked unconscious by a bushy-haired man. He awoke to find that his wife had been murdered and then chased the intruder across the lawn where he was knocked out a second time. After awakening outside the house, he immediately telephoned the mayor of Cleveland, his friend, and related the story.

Both prosecutors and the media seized on Sheppard as the murderer. Even before his arrest three weeks later, police interrogated Sheppard at the coroner's inquest without his lawyer present. Rumors of marital difficulties and Sheppard's alleged extra-marital affairs, led the Cleveland newspapers to sensationalize the case until it became notorious nationwide.

At the trial in the fall of 1954, prosecutors had no clear-cut motive to explain why Sheppard had allegedly killed his wife. The best they could offer was the intimation that he had been having an affair with a former laboratory technician. Following a chaotic trial, in which the media had telephones, special tables, opportunities to photograph the jurors, and even interviews with the judge on the courthouse steps, the jury returned a guilty verdict. Sheppard received a life sentence.

From 1954 to 1966, Sheppard continuously appealed the jury's verdict. He argued that pretrial publicity had destroyed his chance of a fair trial by prejudicing jurors. His appeals failed until 1964, when U.S. District Court Judge Carl A. Weinman ruled in his favor (Sheppard v. Maxwell, 231 F. Supp. 37 [S.D. Ohio]). Without addressing Sheppard's innocence or guilt, Weinman held that he had been denied due process because negative reporting by the Cleveland press had adversely affected the jurors' verdict. But a year later, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati overruled Judge Weinman (Sheppard v. Maxwell, 346 F.2d 707 [6th Cir. 1965]). The appeals court said that qualified jurors are able to make thoughtful rulings in the face of publicity.

But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Sheppard's trial had been prejudiced by pretrial publicity. So virulent had been the negative publicity that prejudice could safely be presumed, the Court held. It blamed the trial judge for not minimizing the effect of the publicity, which it likened to a circus atmosphere. The decision heightened consideration of criminal defendant's Sixth Amendment right to due process. Significantly, the Court did not seek to curtail the Freedom of the Press to report on trials. Instead, the Court said that in a case where a defendant's rights are threatened by pretrial publicity, the trial judge must protect the defendant. This, it said, could be accomplished by taking such measures as isolating the jury through a process called Sequestration, in which jury members are shielded from contact with the outside world during the course of a trial.

Although the Supreme Court did not rule on Sheppard's guilt or innocence, it reversed his conviction and ordered a new trial. In November 1966, 13 years after his conviction, he stood trial again. This time, represented by the high-profile attorney f. lee bailey, Sheppard was acquitted. Four years later, after a brief career as a professional wrestler named "Killer Sheppard," a despondent Sheppard died on April 7, 1970, from liver complications caused by heavy drinking.

In 1995 Sheppard's son, Sam Reese Sheppard, used his father's estate to file a lawsuit against Ohio for the wrongful imprisonment of Dr. Sheppard. To win the case, Sheppard had to prove that his father was innocent, a more difficult standard than for the acquittal Dr. Sheppard was granted at his retrial. Sheppard hoped to prove his father's innocence using new DNA Evidence. Although he said his sole intention was to clear his father's name, Sheppard stood to receive as much as $2 million in damages for the ten years his father spent in jail.

The younger Sheppard and his attorneys suggested that Marilyn Sheppard may have been killed by Richard Eberling, a window washer who had been employed by the Sheppards at the time of the murder. In 1984 Eberling had been convicted of killing an elderly woman named Ethel Durkin in order to inherit her estate. In 1996 Durkin's former nurse stated that Eberling had told her that he had killed Marilyn Sheppard. Eberling, who was in prison for Durkin's murder denied making the statement.

In February 1997 the Sheppard family attorneys announced that DNA testing conducted by Dr. Mohammed Tahir showed that the blood found in the Sheppard home the night of Marilyn's murder could conceivably be that of Richard Eberling. In September of that year Sam Reese Sheppard had his father's remains exhumed in order to conduct DNA testing. In March 1998 the Sheppard attorneys stated that the results of the DNA testing excluded Dr. Sheppard from the bloodstains found at the murder scene. In July 1998 Eberling died in prison. The state had the bodies of Mrs. Sheppard and the fetus she was carrying exhumed in 1999 so that DNA and other tests could be conducted. Prosecutors stated that the test results still pointed to Dr. Sheppard as the murderer.

The wrongful imprisonment trial commenced in February 2000. Led by William Mason, Ohio prosecutors maintained their position that Dr. Sheppard killed his wife. They challenged Tahir's DNA results, saying Tahir used contaminated DNA samples. Prominent trial lawyer F. Lee Bailey, who defended Dr. Sheppard during his retrial in 1966, was the first witness. Bailey testified that the 1954 trial was a conspiracy between police, prosecutors, the court, and newspapers to convict an innocent man.

The younger Sheppard testified about the night of the murder that took place when he was seven. He said there was no tension between his parents when his mother tucked him into bed that night. In the early morning hours, his uncle and a neighbor woke him to tell him "something terrible had happened." Anticipating the defense's case, Sheppard admitted that his father had extramarital sexual relations while Marilyn recovered from sexual problems.

While Sheppard testified, the prosecutors had a surprise for the jury. Although Sheppard always said he was more interested in clearing his father's name than making money, prosecutor William Mason disclosed in open court that Sheppard once asked for $3.2 million to settle the case out of court. The judge described Mason's disclosure as "improper" because the offer had been confidential. Mason's tactic worked, however, as jurors got to hear damaging evidence they should not have heard.

When it came time for the prosecutors' case, they belittled Tahir's DNA evidence as "mumbo jumbo." They said Dr. Sheppard was a playboy who had an affair with his lab technician and then killed his pregnant wife to get out of the marriage. Dr. Robert White used medical records to testify that Dr. Sheppard's story of being knocked out by an intruder was shaky. In closing arguments, Prosecutor William Mason said to the jury, "It may just be that you are being asked to award the killer's son for the killer bludgeoning his wife."

After listening to testimony for two months, the jury deliberated for less than three hours on April 12, 2000, before finding in favor of the Ohio prosecutors. In a short statement after his loss, Sam Reese Sheppard said, "The Sheppard family may be bloodied, but we are unbowed. We've been unbowed for 45 years. We'll be unbowed for all time."

Further readings

Cooper, Cynthia L., and Reese Sam Sheppard. 1995. Mockery of Justice: The True Story of the Sheppard Murder Case. Boston: Northeastern Univ. Press.

Flynn, Joseph F. 1993. "Prejudicial Publicity in Criminal Trials: Bringing Sheppard v. Maxwell into the Nineties." New England Law Review 27 (spring).

Neff, James. 2002. The Wrong Man: The Final Verdict on the Dr. Sam Sheppard Murder Case. New York: Random House.

Cross-references

DNA Evidence; First Amendment; Sequestration.