This Day in Criminal Justice History: October 18, 1954
In the midst of what the United States Supreme Court would later characterize as a media circus, the murder trial of Dr. Sam Sheppard begins on this day – October 18, 1954 — in Cleveland, Ohio.
Sheppard, a private hospital doctor, was accused of bludgeoning to death his childhood sweetheart and wife of seven years, Marilyn. The circumstances sounded suspicious and everyone, including the judge who presided at the trial, it would later be learned, assumed that Sheppard was guilty.
It was July third, and the Sheppards had hosted an Independence Day party at their house on the shores of Lake Erie in the Cleveland suburb of Bay Village. Late that night, Marilyn went upstairs to the couple’s bedroom to go to bed. Her husband fell asleep on the sofa in the living room downstairs. He would be awakened in a few hours by Marilyn’s screams from upstairs. Racing up the stairs, he encountered a shadowy figure beating his wife. Sheppard struggled with the intruder, was knocked down, and the assailant fled. But Sheppard pursued him out of the house and down to the beach, where there was another struggle and Sheppard was knocked unconscious. The unknown male assailant made his escape and Sheppard could only describe him as a bushy-haired man.
A police investigation failed to find fingerprints or other forensic evidence helping to identify an intruder. Suspicion was clearly focused on Dr. Sam Sheppard, especially an affair with a young laboratory technician came to light.
Defended by William J. Corrigan, a local criminal defense attorney, the trial was noteworthy for its length (it became the longest-running murder trial in U.S. history at the time) and the crush of media that was in the courtroom. Well-known celebrities, news commentators, and reporters were given priority seating, and the judge allowed radio and television broadcasters access to all participants, including jurors. Cleveland newspapers along with radio and TV outlets had steadily concluded, right up to the beginning of the trial, that Sheppard was guilty and it would be a travesty if he got away with the murder of his wife and unborn child.
Evidence presented during the trial served to confirm the public perception of Sheppard as a philandering husband who likely had a motive for doing away with his wife.
When the case was turned over to the jury, the deliberation lasted for four days. But, on December 21, 1954, the verdict was announced. Dr. Sam Sheppard was guilty of second degree murder. He would be subsequently sentenced to life in prison and he was transported to the Ohio Penitentiary to start serving his life-long term.
But Sheppard would maintain his innocence and eventually the well-known Boston defense attorney, F. Lee Bailey, would handle an appeal. Basing the appeal on the prejudicial pretrial publicity, the U.S. Supreme Court would ultimately overturn his conviction because the high court concluded that Sheppard could not, under the circumstances of the negative publicity, have received a fair trial. The case was remanded back to the original court for a new trial.
- Lee Bailey handled the defense in the second trial, and this time a jury would find him not guilty on Nov. 16, 1966.
But, by the time he was acquitted in the second trial, Sheppard had spent almost 12 years of his life in prison. However, a cloud of doubt would hang over his head, and he died in 1970 at age 46. His son, Samuel Reese “Chip” Sheppard, worked tirelessly for years to prove his father innocent and to find the guilty person. Chip Sheppard wrote the book “Mockery of Justice: The True Story of the Sheppard Murder Case” in 1995 arguing persuasively for his father’s innocence.
The long-running TV series, “The Fugitive,” starring David Janssen, seemed to everyone in America to be based on the Sheppard case. However, Roy Huggins, the creator of the series that ran from 1963 to 1967 denied it. The TV series was about a man accused of killing his wife who runs away and is thus a fugitive, but he relentlessly tries to prove his innocence and bring the real killer to justice. A1993 film, starring Tommy Lee Jones and Harrison Ford, was based on the TV series and was also called “The Fugitive.” Again, most people believed it was about the Dr. Sam Sheppard murder case. To this day, no was else has been charged or convicted of the Marilyn Sheppard murder, although a handyman, Richard Eberling, who died behind bars in 1998, has been a person of interest.