Samuel Sheppard Trials: 1954 and 1966
Samuel Sheppard Trials: 1954 and 1966
Defendant: Samuel Sheppard
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: First trial: William J. Corrigan, William Corrigan, Jr., Fred Garmone, and Arthur E. Petersilge; Second trial: F. Lee Bailey
Chief Prosecutors: First trial: Saul S. Danaceau, John J. Mahon, and Thomas J. Parrino; Second trial: John Corrigan
Judges: First trial: Edward C. Blythin; Second trial: Francis J. Talty
Place: Cleveland, Ohio
Dates of Trials: October 18-December 21, 1954; October 24-November 16, 1966
Verdicts: First trial: Guilty, second-degree homicide; Second trial: Not guilty
Sentence: First trial: Life imprisonment
SIGNIFICANCE: In this most sensational American murder case of the 1950s, pretrial prejudice and adverse media publicity conspired to deprive the defendant of his constitutional rights.
Balancing First Amendment rights to free speech against a defendant's right to a fair trial has never been easy, but in covering the Sam Sheppard trial, Cleveland's major newspapers trampled these distinctions underfoot. The abominations they perpetrated on a local level, radio columnist Walter Winchell paralleled nationally, until virtually everyone in America was convinced of Sheppard's guilt before even a word of testimony was heard. To be sure, his story sounded unlikely, but improbability does not necessarily imply guilt. Life is strange and so, very often, is death.
This amazing saga had its beginnings on July 3, 1954, when Dr. Samuel Sheppard, an affluent 30-year-old osteopath, and his pregnant wife Marilyn, invited their neighbors, the Ahearns, over for drinks at their home on the shores of Lake Erie. While the others watched TV, Sheppard dozed on the couch. Just after midnight the Ahearns left. Sam Sheppard remained sleeping on the couch while Marilyn Sheppard went to bed.
Sometime later, according to his version of events, Sheppard heard a loud moan or scream. He rushed upstairs to the bedroom and saw "a white form" standing beside the bed. Then everything went black. When he regained consciousness, Sheppard realized he had been clubbed on the neck. He stumbled across to the bed where his wife lay unmoving. A sudden noise sent him racing downstairs. By the rear door he spotted "a man with bushy hair." He pursued the intruder onto the beach and tackled him from behind. During the struggle Sheppard blacked out again. This time when he came to, he was partially immersed in the waters of Lake Erie. Groggily, he staggered back to the house and phoned for help.
Police found Marilyn Sheppard's half-nude body lying in a pool of blood, her head and face smashed to a pulp. Downstairs, a writing desk had been ransacked and the contents of Sheppard's medical bag lay strewn across the floor. Apparently, someone had come to rob the house and ended up killing Marilyn Sheppard.
Meantime, Sam Sheppard had been whisked away by his two brothers to the hospital they owned jointly. It was this incident, more than any other, which unleashed the tidal wave of venomous press coverage that swamped this case, as circulation-hungry editors clamored that the wealthy "Sheppard Boys" had closed ranks to protect their own.
The discovery at the house of a canvas bag, containing Sheppard's wristwatch, key chain and key, and a fraternity ring, gave rise to speculation that he had faked a robbery to conceal murder. When details of an extramarital affair emerged, official suspicion heightened. Urged on by an increasingly vituperative Cleveland press, police arrested Sheppard and charged him with murder.
The Carnival Begins
Amid unprecedented ballyhoo, on Monday, October 18, the state of Ohio opened its case against Sheppard. Judge Edward Blythin set the tone early. A candidate for re-election in the upcoming November ballot, he shamelessly curried favor with the press, issuing handwritten passes for the elite like Dorothy Kilgallen and Bob Considine, even providing them their own special table at which to sit. Blythin presided over a madcap bazaar of popping flash bulbs, vindictive reporters and hideous uproar, what the New York Times would later describe as "a Roman circus."
Prosecutor John Mahon made the most of what was a wafer-thin case. In the absence of any direct evidence against the defendant, other than he was in the house when Marilyn Sheppard was killed, Mahon emphasized the inconsistencies in Sam Sheppard's story. Why was there no sand in his hair when he claimed to have been sprawled on the beach? Where was the T-shirt that he had been wearing? Had bloodstains received during the attack forced him to destroy it? And why would a burglar first take the belongings in the canvas bag and then ditch them? Besides which, said Mahon, "Police … could find no evidence that anyone had broken in." For motive, Mahon pointed to Sheppard's affair with Susan Hayes, a lab technician at the family hospital, as reason enough for him to want to be rid of his wife.
Initially, the lack of a murder weapon posed problems for the prosecution, but Cuyahoga County Coroner Samuel R. Gerber neatly circumvented this discrepancy by telling the court that a bloody imprint found on the pillow beneath Marilyn Sheppard's head was made by a "two-bladed surgical instrument with teeth on the end of each blade," probably the missing weapon. Inexplicably, the defense attorneys left this vague assertion unchallenged, an omission which caused irreparable damage to their client's case.
Morals, not Murder
Susan Hayes, in her testimony, demurely cataloged a long-running romantic liaison. Asked where the acts of intimacy took place, she replied: "In his car, and in his apartment above the Sheppard clinic.… He said he loved his wife very much but not as a wife. He was thinking of divorce." Other than showing that Sheppard was unfaithful, Hayes' testimony proved nothing. But the damage had been done. Sheppard wound up being tried more for his morals than for any crime. Defense attorney Fred Garmone's final question went some way toward salvaging the loss: "Miss Hayes, during all your activities as a technician at the hospital, and your activities with Dr. Sheppard, were you always aware that he was a married man?"
"Yes," she whispered.
"That's all," Garmone said.
Arguably the most potent prosecution witness was Judge Blythin. His antipathy toward the defendant was plain and unvarnished. Early in the trial he had remarked to Dorothy Kilgallen: "Sheppard is as guilty as hell," and throughout the proceedings he had hectored and hamstrung the defense at every turn. Such an attitude on the bench ensured that Sheppard's last chance of receiving a fair trial evaporated. His own appearance on the stand was largely irrelevant. He performed well, but not well enough to overcome the atmosphere in court.
Jury deliberations lasted four days and resulted in a verdict of guilty to second-degree murder. (A rumor that some jurors were unwilling to commit Sheppard to the electric chair and might therefore acquit him, had forced Judge Blythin to dangle the second-degree carrot in front of them, and they'd gobbled it up greedily.) Blythin pronounced sentence: "It is now the judgment of this court that you be taken to the Ohio Penitentiary, there to remain for the rest of your natural life."
A Second Chance
In November 1961, attorney F. Lee Bailey, then a 29-year-old newcomer, took up Sheppard's cause. He filed a stream of motions on Sheppard's behalf and saw every one rejected. His frustration lasted until March 1964, when, by chance, Bailey attended a literary dinner. Among the other guests was Dorothy Kilgallen, and she happened to repeat Judge Blythin's off-the-record remark to her during the trial. Bailey listened intently. If he could demonstrate judicial prejudice then that would be grounds for a new trial.
Four months later a judge ordered Sheppard freed on bail, citing that the carnival conditions surrounding his trial "fell far below the minimum requirements for due process."
The following year Bailey argued his case before the Supreme Court, claiming that Blythin had displayed prejudice and that the trial had been conducted in a manner unbecoming a legal action. The Court agreed. On June 6, 1965, they handed down their decision that Sheppard's 1954 conviction be set aside, because Judge Blythin "did not fulfill his duty to protect Sheppard from inherently prejudicial publicity which saturated the county."
Ohio tried Sheppard again. Media interest remained high but this time was kept in check when the trial opened October 24, 1966, before Judge Francis J. Talty. Prosecutor John Corrigan led witnesses through essentially the same story that they had told over a decade earlier, but they now faced a defense attorney at the peak of his powers. Bailey demolished them, particularly Coroner Samuel Gerber. Referring to the elusive "surgical instrument," Gerber pompously announced that he had spent the last 12 years looking for just such an item "all over the United States."
"Please tell us what you found?" asked Bailey.
Sadly, Gerber shook his head: "I didn't find one."
Bailey scathingly dismissed the prosecution's case as "ten pounds of hogwash in a five-pound bag."
On December 16, 1966, the jury took less than 12 hours to return a verdict of not guilty: Sam Sheppard's ordeal was over.
But liberty proved brief. Sheppard died in 1970.
In 1995, Sheppard's son, Sam Reese Sheppard, initiated action to sue Ohio for the wrongful imprisonment of his father, claiming that recently uncovered DNA evidence pointed to the real killer being the family's former handyman, Richard Eberling, who was then serving a sentence for murder in Florida. (Before his death in 1998 Eberling denied any involvement in the Sheppard case.)
In December 1998, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that Sam Reese Sheppard could pursue a wrongful imprisonment suit on behalf of his father.
After much delay, testimony got under way on February 14, 2000, before Judge Ronald Suster. Terry Gilbert, attorney for the plaintiff, promised the eight-person jury that "finaly, after 45 and a half years, the truth will be told to you in this courtroom."
Facing potential damage payments running into millions, the state hit back hard, with Cuyahoga County Prosecutor William D. Mason describing Sheppard as a cad whose affairs create a "powder keg" of tension that exploded when he battered his wife to death.
The much touted DNA evidence proved to be ambiguous. Dr. Mohammed Tahir testified that two blood smears found at the scene did not match blood from either Sheppard or the victim, but could have come from Eberling. However, under cross-examination, Tahir conceded that Eberling was just one of "thousands" whose blood might match the badly degraded DNA sample. In most other respects the testimony was largely a rerun of the two previous trials, just as baffling, and just as contradictory.
On April 12, 2000, for the third time this remarkable case went to a jury. After just three hours of deliberation they decided in favor of the state, saying that the original jury had got it right after all—Dr. Sam Sheppard had murdered his wife.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Bailey, F. Lee with Harvey Aronson. The Defense Never Rests. New York: Stein and Day Publishers, 1971.
Gaute, J.H.H. and Robin Odell. The Murderers' Who's Who. London: W.H. Allen, 1989.
Holmes, Paul. The Sheppard Murder Case. New York: David McKay, 1961.
Pollack, Jack Harrison. Dr. Sam —An American Tragedy. Chicago: Regnery, 1972.
Sheppard, Sam. Endure And Conquer. Cleveland: World, 1966.
Sheppard, Stephen with Paul Holmes. My Brother's Keeper. New York: David McKay, 1964.