Sheppard, Sam

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Sam Sheppard

Born December 23, 1923 (Cleveland, Ohio)

Died April 6, 1970 (Columbus, Ohio)

Accused murderer, physician

In 1954 Dr. Sam Sheppard was accused of the brutal murder of his wife Marilyn at their home in Cleveland, Ohio. Before the sensational Sheppard criminal case was over, a landmark Supreme Court ruling would be handed down on the widely debated conflict between freedom of the press and a defendant's right to a fair trial. The decision set specific guide-lines for criminal trial court judges to follow in an effort to protect jurors from too much publicity.

"I couldn't kill a squirrel or a rabbit much less someone I loved."

American criminal law operates on the assumption that someone is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. The news media, however, assumed the role of judge and jury during the investigation and subsequent trial of Dr. Sam Sheppard in 1954. He was essentially condemned in the court of public opinion before he went to trial. A review by the Supreme Court in 1966 ruled that Sheppard did not receive a fail trial and he was ultimately cleared of the crime. His story inspired a highly popular television series and a Hollywood movie, both known as The Fugitive.

A promising future

Samuel Holmes Sheppard was the third son born to Dr. Richard and Ethel Sheppard. His father founded Bay View Hospital, an osteopathic (medical treatment of bones and muscle) facility located in an elite lakefront suburb on Cleveland's west side. Samuel graduated from Cleveland Heights High School the year after his high school sweetheart, Marilyn Reese. They were married in Hollywood, California, in 1945, while Samuel attended the Los Angeles College of Osteopathic Physicians and Surgeons.

In 1947 Samuel and Marilyn had a son and named him Sam. After receiving his medical degree, Samuel joined his father and two elder brothers, Richard and Stephen, in business. Sheppard moved his young family back to Bay Village, Ohio, and purchased a home on the shore of Lake Erie.

Sheppard took up surgical residence at Bay View Hospital, where he was called Dr. Sam to distinguish him from the other Dr. Sheppards. The family of physicians worked together and prospered at the hospital, the town's largest employer, as well as in their private practice in the nearby suburb of Fairview Park. For the next few years Dr. Sam was on emergency medical call more than one third of his evenings, just as he was on the holiday weekend of July 4, 1954.

Independence Day

On July 3, Sam Sheppard returned home from an emergency call to enjoy a late dinner with his wife and several guests before falling asleep on the couch in the living room. Marilyn, who was four months pregnant, went upstairs to bed around midnight after saying goodbye to their guests. Four hours later, in the early morning hours of July 4, Marilyn Sheppard was beaten to death while her husband slept downstairs.

Sam heard Marilyn calling him and ran upstairs to the dimly lit room where he saw a bushy-haired form in light clothing standing next to his wife's bed. He wrestled with the intruder before being knocked unconscious. When Sam awoke he found his wife dead and then went to his seven-year-old son's room to find him sleeping soundly. Sheppard went downstairs when he heard noises and chased the killer down to the lakefront before being knocked out a second time. When Sam stumbled back to his home he called for help and the Bay Village police responded.

The Bay Village police department had never investigated a murder in their quiet community. They called in the Cleveland police as well as the county coroner to help. The coroner arrived before 8:00 a.m. and cleared the home of friends and neighbors before securing the crime scene. Early in its investigation the police concluded the murderer had been very familiar with Sheppard's property and home.

By mid-afternoon the coroner and one of the detectives accused Sheppard of murdering his wife and began searching for his motive. Although Sheppard had no history of violent behavior and was well-liked in his community, officials focused their investigation on him from the beginning.

The morning after Marilyn Sheppard died all three Cleveland newspapers published headlines about the murder. By mid-morning, lines of cars drove slowly past the Sheppard home with passengers leaning out of windows to snap photographs. Some parked their vehicles and walked into the yard for a closer look. For the next month the Sheppard murder case was closely followed with daily news reports that started out sympathetic to Dr. Sam but evolved into accusations.

By the end of July front page editorials claimed investigators were inept and that Sheppard's social standing was shielding him from justice. He was arrested on murder charges the evening of July 30 and taken to Bay Village City Hall. Hundreds of people, including newscasters, photographers, and reporters, were there awaiting his arrival.

Character assassination

Sheppard's trial was set to begin October 18 with Sheppard maintaining his story that he had confronted and fought the attacker. Extensive pretrial publicity across the country made the case so notorious that it resulted in a frenzied atmosphere when the trial date finally arrived. Outside the courthouse, on the sidewalks and steps, the national media waited to take pictures of Sheppard and other trial participants.

Inside the courtroom the judge allowed space to be reserved for television and newspaper reporters. Broadcasting facilities for radio were set up at the courthouse so newscasts could be made daily throughout the trial. Records of the day's proceedings in court were printed word-for-word by newspapers, accompanied by photographs of the participants and exhibits introduced at trial. The new medium of television made the media exposure unprecedented in American history.

On the first day of the trial, the jury viewed the scene of the murder. One representative of the news media was permitted to accompany the jury while they inspected the Sheppard home. Hundreds more reporters, cameramen, and onlookers waited outside. On December 17 the case was submitted to the jury for deliberation. They returned four days later with a guilty verdict. Sheppard was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. The Cleveland Press sold thirty thousand extra copies of their newspaper on the night of the verdict.

F. Lee Bailey

F. Lee Bailey was a recent graduate of Boston University Law School and an aspiring criminal attorney when he was introduced to the Sheppard case in the early 1960s. He began the appeals process for Sam Sheppard arguing that his trial had been unfair and so was his continued prison sentence. Bailey filed the writ (written request) in Ohio's southern federal district in 1963 so it would be considered by U.S. District Judge Carl Weinman of Dayton.

Weinman ruled in Sheppard's favor but a federal court of appeals overturned the decision by a vote of two to one. Failing on a second plea to the same court, Bailey filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court was itself already focusing on granting defendants better legal standing in the criminal justice system. In February 1966, Bailey successfully presented his case. The Supreme Court ruled that Sam Sheppard did not receive a fair trial due to publicity before and during the trial that unfairly influenced or prejudiced the jury.

Cleveland authorities could not recharge Sheppard with first-degree murder under the double jeopardy prohibition in the Constitution. Double jeopardy means a person cannot be tried twice for the same crime. Instead they brought second-degree murder charges against him. Sheppard found himself, once again, in court. Bailey
provided an aggressive defense beginning on November 1, 1966. It ended with a not-guilty verdict after only eighteen days of testimony. Bailey's strategy was to raise reasonable doubt in the jurors' minds and propose other suspects in the murder case.

Over his long career Bailey used his skills as a criminal defense attorney to defend several high profile cases including the Albert DeSalvo (1931–1973; also known as the "Boston Strangler"), Patty Hearst (1954–), and O.J. Simpson (1947–). Bailey was a master at cross-examination and was among the first to use a jury consultant to help him select jurors at trial. He was known to hold press conferences to discuss the progress of his cases, which added to his notoriety.

An acquittal

Sheppard served ten years in the Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus for the murder of his wife before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the media had corrupted the original trial. A second trial in 1966 included pioneering work in crime scene investigation and blood evidence to prove Sheppard could not have killed Marilyn. Attorney F. Lee Bailey (1933–; see sidebar) won Sheppard's acquittal in 1967. A hostile press, however, continued to track Sheppard throughout his remaining years.

Sheppard's life became the inspiration for a popular television program called The Fugitive. In the television version, and a later movie version, the innocent doctor is accused of murdering his wife but escapes from prison and spends years on the run in search of the real killer. Both fictional and real life stories ended with the acquittal of the husband. Although in the film version the killer is apprehended, in the real-life Sheppard case the killer was never brought to justice.

Sheppard was finally a free man but he had lost his wife, and his son had been raised by his brother for over a decade. He tried to return to medicine in Ohio in 1968 but his skills had seriously deteriorated while he was in prison. The board at Youngstown Osteopathic Hospital restored Sheppard's surgical privileges but he was dismissed following several malpractice lawsuits. Dr. Sam Sheppard died of liver failure in 1970 at the age of forty-six.

For More Information


Cooper, Cynthia L., and Sam Reese Sheppard. Mockery of Justice: The TrueStory of the Sheppard Murder Case. Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press, 1995.

Hixson, Walter L. Murder, Culture, and Injustice: Four Sensational Cases in American History. Akron, OH: University of Akron Press, 2001.

Neff, James. The Wrong Man. New York: Random House, 2001.

Web Sites

"F. Lee Bailey Biography." University of Missouri. (accessed on August 15, 2004).

Sheppard v. Maxwell: U.S. Supreme Court. Sam Reese Sheppard: Seeking theTruth. (accessed on August 15, 2004).

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Sheppard, Sam

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