The Unsolved Mystery of the Sam Sheppard Case
On November 16, 1966, Dr. Sam Sheppard was acquitted at his second trial for the murder of his wife, Marilyn, in 1954. The case was one of the most famous – and controversial – of the 1950s and went on to inspire the TV show and film of THE FUGITIVE (even though the creators denied) it and Stephen King’s story and the film THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION.
Samuel Sheppard was born in Cleveland, Ohio, the youngest of three sons of Dr. Richard Allen Sheppard. He attended Cleveland Heights High School where he was an excellent student and was active in football, basketball, and track; he was class president for three years. Although several small Ohio colleges offered him athletic scholarships, Sheppard chose to follow the lead of his father and two older brothers and pursued a career in osteopathic medicine. He enrolled at Hanover College in Indiana, studied at the Western Reserve University in Cleveland and then finished his medical education at the Los Angeles Osteopathic School of Physicians and Surgeons. He completed his internship and residency in L.A. but a few years after marrying Marilyn Reese in February 1945, Sheppard returned to Ohio and joined his father's growing medical practice.
What seemed a promising life was shattered when Sheppard was arrested – and then convicted – for murdering his then-pregnant wife Marilyn in their home in the early morning hours of July 4, 1954. Sheppard claimed his wife was killed by a “bushy-haired man” who also attacked him and twice knocked him unconscious. The Sheppards' lakefront home was located in Bay Village, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland, just west of the city.
Sheppard was brought to trial in the autumn of 1954. The case is notable for its extensive publicity and what the U.S. Supreme Court called a "carnival atmosphere." Newspapers across the country vilified Sheppard in print and were obviously biased against the doctor with their inflammatory coverage of the case. Sheppard was portrayed as the only suspect in the case. One headline from Cleveland even read: “Why Isn’t Sam Sheppard in Jail?” His suspect – the one-armed man… ooops, the bushy-haired man – was dismissed by investigators and reporters alike as a fanciful concoction.
The high-profile nature of the case proved to be a boon to lead prosecutor John J. Mahon, who was running for a seat on the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas as the trial began. Mahon won his seat, and served until his death on January 31, 1962.
But things did admittedly look bad for Sheppard. It was revealed during the course of the investigation and trial that Sheppard had a three-year-long extramarital affair with Susan Hayes, a nurse at the hospital where Sheppard was employed. The prosecution argued that the affair was Sheppard's motive for killing his wife.
Sheppard's attorney, William Corrigan, argued that Sheppard had severe injuries and that those injuries were inflicted by the intruder. Corrigan based his argument on the report made by noted neurosurgeon, Dr. Charles Elkins, M.D., who examined Sheppard and found that he had suffered a cervical concussion, nerve injury, many absent or weak reflexes (most notably on the left side of his body) and injury in the region of the second cervical vertebra in the back of the neck. Dr. Elkins stated that it was impossible to "fake" or simulate the missing reflex responses. The defense further argued that the crime scene was extremely bloody, and except for a small spot on his trousers, the only blood evidence on Sheppard was transfer bloodstains on his watch. Corrigan also argued that two of Marilyn's teeth had been broken, and the pieces had been pulled out of her mouth, suggesting she had bitten her assailant. He told the jury that Sheppard had no open wounds.
Sheppard took the stand in his own defense. He testified that he had been sleeping downstairs on a daybed when he woke to his wife's screams. He told a vague story, saying, "I think that she cried or screamed my name once or twice, during which time I ran upstairs, thinking that she might be having a reaction similar to convulsions that she had had in the early days of her pregnancy. I charged into our room and saw a form with a light garment, I believe. At that time grappling with something or someone. During this short period I could hear loud moans or groaning sounds and noises. I was struck down. It seems like I was hit from behind somehow but had grappled this individual from in front or generally in front of me. I was apparently knocked out. The next thing I knew, I was gathering my senses while coming to a sitting position next to the bed, my feet toward the hallway."
He further said, "I looked at my wife, I believe I took her pulse and felt that she was gone. I believe that I thereafter instinctively or subconsciously ran into my youngster's room next door and somehow determined that he was all right, I am not sure how I determined this. After that, I thought that I heard a noise downstairs, seemingly in the front eastern portion of the house." He ran back downstairs and chased what he described as a "bushy-haired intruder" or "form" down to the Lake Erie beach below his home, before being knocked out again. The defense called eighteen character witnesses for Sheppard, and two witnesses who said that they had seen a bushy-haired man near the Sheppard home on the day of the crime.
The jury was not convinced. On December 21, 1954, it found Sheppard guilty of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to life in prison. Soon after his conviction, Sheppard twice received devastating family news: on January 7, 1955, his mother committed suicide (gunshot); 11 days later, his father died of a bleeding gastric ulcer. In both cases, he was permitted to attend the funerals but was required to wear handcuffs.
After more than six years of appeals, Corrigan died on July 30, 1961. Months later, F. Lee Bailey took over as Sheppard's chief counsel. Family tragedies also continued during this period: On February 13, 1963, his late wife's father, Thomas S. Reese, committed suicide in an East Cleveland, Ohio, motel.
Sheppard served 10 years of his sentence. After several appeals were rejected, his petition for a writ of habeas corpus was granted by a United States district court judge on July 15, 1964. The State of Ohio was ordered either to free Sheppard or to grant him a new trial. The case was reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court in Sheppard v. Maxwell. The Court held that Sheppard's conviction was the result of a trial in which he was denied due process. The decision noted, among other factors, that a "carnival atmosphere" had permeated the trial, and that Edward J. Blythin, the trial judge, had refused to sequester the jury, had not ordered the jury to ignore and disregard media reports of the case, and when speaking to newspaper columnist Dorothy Kilgallen shortly before the trial started said, "Well, he's guilty as hell. There's no question about it."
At his new arraignment on September 8, 1966, Sheppard loudly pleaded "not guilty" with his attorney, F. Lee Bailey, by his side. Jury selection got under way on October 24, and opening statements began eight days later. Unlike in the original trial, neither Sheppard nor Susan Hayes took the stand, a strategy that proved to be successful when a "not guilty" verdict was returned on November 16. The trial was very important to Bailey's rise to prominence among American criminal defense lawyers. It was during this trial that Paul Kirk presented the bloodspatter evidence he collected in Sheppard's home in 1955 which proved crucial to his acquittal.
After his acquittal, Sheppard helped write a book which presented his side of the case and gave insight into his years in prison. He also returned briefly to medicine in Youngstown, Ohio, but was sued twice for medical malpractice by the estates of dead patients. After that, his life went into a tailspin. He never really recovered from the trial, accusations and prison years. He worked briefly as a professional wrestler, going by the name “The Killer,” and became a raging alcoholic. He died of liver failure on April 6, 1970. By the end of his life, Sheppard was reportedly prone to drinking "as much as two fifths of liquor a day." He was buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Gardens in Columbus, Ohio.
But his story was not over yet. In 1997, his remains were exhumed for DNA testing as part of the lawsuit brought by his son to clear his name. Sheppard's son, Samuel Reese Sheppard, has devoted considerable time and effort towards clearing his father's reputation. In 1999, he sued the State of Ohio in the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas for his father's wrongful imprisonment. At the trial, attorney Terry Gilbert, who had been retained by Sheppard, suggested that Richard Eberling, an occasional handyman and window washer at the Sheppard home, was the likeliest suspect in Marilyn's murder, after a ring that had belonged to Marilyn Sheppard was allegedly found in his possession. Eberling died in an Ohio prison in 1998, where he was serving a life sentence for the 1984 murder of an elderly, wealthy, Lakewood, Ohio, woman, Ethel May Durkin, a widow who died without any immediate family. Durkin's murder was uncovered when a court appointed review of the woman's estate revealed that Eberling, Durkin's guardian and executor, had failed to execute the decedent's final wishes, which included stipulations on her burial. Durkin's body was exhumed, and additional injuries were discovered in the autopsy that did not match Eberling's previous claims of in-house accidents, including a fall down a staircase in her home. Coincidentally, both of Durkin's sisters, Myrtle Fray and Sarah Belle Farrow, had died under suspicious circumstances as well. Fray was killed after being "savagely" beaten about the head and face and then strangled; Farrow died following a fall down the basement steps in the home she shared with Durkin in 1970, a fall in which she broke both legs and both arms. In subsequent legal action, both Eberling and his partner, Obie Henderson, were found guilty in Durkin's death.
DNA testing of Richard Eberling's blood in connection with the Sheppard investigation, to see if there was a match with the blood found at the murder scene, was inconclusive. Prosecutors argued that the blood evidence had been tainted in the years since it was collected, and that it potentially placed 90% of all Americans on the crime scene (blood collected from a closet door in Marilyn Sheppard's room was Type O, while Eberling's blood type was A).
Eberling had admitted having been in the Sheppard home, and stated he cut his finger while washing windows and bled while on the premises. This has been cited as evidence of Eberling's involvement in the murder, although some questioned why Eberling would account for his blood being in the house.
Though Eberling denied any criminal involvement in the Sheppard case, a fellow convict reported that Eberling confessed to the crime. Kathie Collins Dyal, a home healthcare worker for Durkin, also testified that Eberling had confessed to her in 1983. The credibility of both witnesses was seriously called into question during the 2000 civil trial.
F. Lee Bailey, Sheppard's attorney during his 1966 retrial, insisted in his testimony in the 2000 civil lawsuit that Eberling could not have been the killer. Instead, Bailey suggested that Esther Houk, wife of Bay Village mayor Spencer Houk, had killed Marilyn in a fit of jealous rage after finding out that Marilyn and her husband had had an affair. The Houks were neighbors of the Sheppards
Cuyahoga County prosecutor William D. Mason led the State of Ohio's trial team, which included assistant prosecutors Steve Dever, Kathleen Martin, and Dean M. Boland. They argued that Sheppard was the most logical suspect, and presented expert testimony suggesting that Marilyn Sheppard's murder was a textbook domestic homicide. They argued that Sheppard had not welcomed the news of his wife's pregnancy, wanted to continue his affairs with Susan Hayes and with other women, was concerned about the social stigma that a divorce might create, and killed Marilyn to get out of his marriage. Prosecutors asked why Sheppard hadn't called out for help, why he had neatly folded his jacket on the daybed in which he said he'd fallen asleep, and why the family dog—which several witnesses had testified (in the first trial in 1954) was very loud when strangers came to the house—had not barked on the night of the murder (recalling the famous Sherlock Holmes remark about "the curious incident of the dog in the night-time," with its implication that the dog knew the criminal).
After ten weeks of trial, 76 witnesses, and hundreds of exhibits, the case went to the eight-person civil jury. The jury deliberated just three hours on April 12, 2000, before returning a unanimous verdict that Samuel Reese Sheppard had failed to prove that his father had been wrongfully imprisoned.
On February 22, 2002, the Eighth District Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that the case should not have gone to the jury, as a wrongful imprisonment claim could be made only by the person actually imprisoned, and not by a family member such as Sam Reese Sheppard. Legal standing to bring such a claim, the court of appeals found, died with the person who had been imprisoned. In August 2002, the Supreme Court of Ohio affirmed the appeals court's decision.
The Sheppard case continues to be a mystery to this day. Technically, unsolved, it’s unlikely that we will never know for sure who killed Marilyn Sheppard in that Cleveland lake house.