Marilyn Sheppard was 31-years-old and four months pregnant on 4 July 1954 when she was battered to death in the bedroom she shared with husband Dr. Sam Sheppard, at their home in Bay Village, Ohio. A neurosurgeon and osteopath who worked within his family’s medical practice, Sam Sheppard told police he had been awoken downstairs by his wife’s screams and knocked unconscious himself by a shadowy figure he had discovered inside their bedroom when he ran in to investigate.
Within two months of his wife’s death, Dr. Sheppard was arrested and charged with her murder. The media response to the case and their presence and reporting of his trial has been catalogued as a prime example of the damage pre-trial publicity can do, severely interrupting a defendant’s right to a fair trial. After being found guilty of murder in 1954, Sam Sheppard’s conviction was overturned in 1964 and at a second trial two years later he was found not guilty of his wife’s murder.
According to the 1966 Supreme Court opinion in Sheppard v Maxwell, on the night of the murder, Sam Sheppard stated his wife had gone to bed earlier in the evening and he had fallen asleep on the couch watching TV. He awoke in the early hours to his wife’s screams. When he ran upstairs and into their bedroom, he could see what he described as a ‘form’ unable to see any detail due to the darkness. He struggled with the figure, receiving blows to the back of his head as a result which left him unconscious on the floor.
When he came to he said, he found his wife dead on the bed. He checked on their 7-year-old son asleep in his room and found him unharmed. He heard a noise downstairs and saw the same figure running out of their house. Taking chase onto the beach behind their home, he once again during a physical altercation was left unconscious. When he awoke he went back to his house, checked his wife again and called his neighbours, the local mayor and his wife, who immediately came to the house. They called police and Sam Sheppard’s brother, who was also a doctor, to attend to the Sheppards.
Examination of the crime scene in the bedroom found Marilyn Sheppard lying on her back on the bed. She had visible lacerations to her forehead and was covered in blood, with blood spatter on the walls and around the room. Sam Sheppard was found to have bruising and swelling around his right eye and cheek. He had an injury to his neck which affected the feeling in his left arm and some damage to his teeth. There were no indications of a break-in or forced entry into the home and no murder weapon was found.
The coroner in the case, Dr. Gerber, is reported to have commented to colleagues immediately that the crime had been carried out by Dr. Sheppard and they should proceed to “get the confession out of him”.
Sam Sheppard did cooperate fully with police and the coroner after the attack, however, he refused to take a lie detector test stating he knew they were not reliable. After a newspaper story in early July featured the Assistant County Attorney criticizing the Sheppard family for not allowing immediate questioning of Sheppard, a detail which was incorrect, a flood of further stories followed all suggestive that Sam Sheppard was not cooperating with police and investigators over his wife’s murder.
It was revealed that Sam Sheppard had been having an affair with a Susan Hayes at the time of his wife’s murder. A fact picked up by the media and the local newspapers continued to report on the case as headline news, with more and more sensational headlines, quotes from the coroner Dr. Greber, and a continued slant that Sam Sheppard had clearly killed his wife and was now trying to get away with murder. Their articles were full of inaccuracies, accusations, and suggestions not based on facts and held a clear push for Sam Sheppard to be viewed as guilty by everyone who read their words. Many of the claims they made about evidence found and the personal lives of the Sheppards were never presented as evidence against Sam Sheppard in court when the case came to trial.
To the delight of the media, Dr. Sheppard was arrested on the evening of 30 July 1954, almost two months after his wife’s murder. Three major Cleveland newspapers covered the case continuously with coverage only intensifying after his arrest and on the run-up to his trial.
The trial began on 18 October 1954 at the Cuyahoga County Court House in Cleveland before Judge Edward Blythin and lasted nine weeks with intensive media attention on the case continuing throughout. In the centre of the courtroom, a decision was made to seat around 20 members of the media to ensure they had full privileged access to his highly publicized trial. On 21 December 1954, the jury returned a verdict of guilty and Sam Sheppard was sentenced to life in prison.
Described as a ‘circus’, this level of media attention was not just feeding the curiosities of the surrounding public interested in every aspect, but the constant barrage of images, comment and opinion were presented to the members of the jury every moment they were inside the courtroom. Furthermore, outside of the courtroom jury members continued to read all manner of details, many of which were simply inaccurate and biased, all written to compete against the next news agency, when they returned to their homes.
The press openly speculated and accused within their reporting, often commenting on their belief that the case had not been handled properly and that Dr. Sheppard received preferential treatment due to his standing as a doctor and as part of a family seen to be prominent and wealthy within the community.
“If ever a murder case was studded with fumbling, halting, stupid, uncooperative bungling-politeness to people whose place in this situation completely justified vigorous searching, prompt and effective police work–the Sheppard case has them all,” one Cleveland press editorial wrote in the months before the trial.
“In the background of this case are friendships, relationships, hired lawyers, a husband who ought to have been subjected instantly to the same third-degree to which any other person under similar circumstances is subjected, and a whole string of special and bewildering extra-privileged courtesies that should never be extended by authorities investigating a murder– the most serious, and sickening crime of all.”
While the judge during the trial did offer ‘suggestions’ to the jury that they not read or expose themselves to the media reporting surrounding the case, the fact his courtroom was allowed to become more of a media broadcasting platform rather than a criminal courtroom does not hold much for his genuine concern regarding this matter.
Of course, this is a trial that took place in 1954, many years before gag orders, restricted media reporting, and the closure of courtrooms completely to members of the media were commonplace. The detrimental effect of pre-trial publicity had yet to be understood and certainly the idea that such reporting could affect an individual’s rights to a fair trial had not been considered.
Freedom of press versus the right to an impartial jury
The issue in the Sam Sheppard case was that by no stretch of description could the jury in his first trial be called impartial. Jury members who have been exposed to media publicity surrounding a case and defendant have been found in numerous research studies to be influenced by this publicity in their views on guilt or innocence and therefore, their final verdict.
While asking a jury member to not take anything they have seen or read in the media into account during their considerations makes sense we know that psychologically emotions, opinions, and attitudes can all have influence and bias unconsciously. An individual may not be purposely influenced by pre-trial publicity and may feel strongly they are not letting such information influence their thought patterns, however, these biases can creep in undetected.
Jury screening and instructions have not proven to be effective methods to filter out any bias or influence from outside publicity whereas, switching the venue of a trial away from where the crime and the core of the publicity, gossip, and emotional public opinion lies, to an outside location and selecting a jury pool from this new area, is an effective way to reduce or even eliminate the damaging effects of pre-trial media publicity.
Before Sam Sheppard’s first trial began, his defence team did file motions with the judge, concerned over the unfavourable media reporting on the case and requesting a change of venue. Furthermore, of all the jurors who were selected to sit on the jury, all confirmed they had read or listened to publicity regarding the case, however, as they responded that they could make their decision on the guilt or innocence of Sam Sheppard without being influenced by such reporting, the judge refused to move the trial to a different location and obtain a jury pool with no such biases.
Reports years after the murder and Sam Sheppard’s conviction also suggest that Judge Blythin had already concluded “he is guilty as hell,” removing any possibility he would rule and act in order to provide this defendant with a fair trial.
In 1966, with the support of up and coming defence attorney F. Lee Bailey, Sam Sheppard successfully won his appeal against his murder conviction on the basis that the publicity described as “massive, pervasive and prejudicial” ensured he did not receive a fair trial. He was tried a second time for the same charge of attempted murder. In October 1966 the court heard oral arguments given by F. Lee Bailey who argued passionately that Sheppard did not murder his wife. He pointed to the injuries Sam Sheppard suffered himself, the lack of a murder weapon, and evidence of blood spots found at the crime scene which did not match either the victim or the defendant. Three weeks later, on 16 November 1966, Sam Sheppard was found not guilty of his wife’s murder.
In the numerous books that have been published on this case, there is one other name that is repeatedly referred to as the real murderer of Marilyn Sheppard.
Richard Eberling was 25-years-old when Marilyn Sheppard was murdered and knew the family through being their window cleaner. Five years after the murder and imprisonment of Sam Sheppard, Richard Eberling was arrested for larceny against a client. When his home was searched, police discovered a ring belonging to Marilyn Sheppard. Despite speculations and opinions on Eberling’s involvement, he was not a suspect defence attorney F. Lee Bailey believed in for the murder. Eberling passed a lie detector test on the murder and Bailey was so confident he was not the killer he called him to the stand to testify in Sheppard’s defence. Richard Eberling was never an official suspect or charged with any crime in relation to the murder of Marilyn Sheppard. He was imprisoned in 1989, after the murder of a local woman Ethel Durkin who he acted as a nurses aid for. Richard Eberling died behind bars in July 1998.
After his release from prison in 1966 Sam Sheppard fell into alcohol abuse and died in 1970 of liver failure at just 46-years-old. Since his death, the case had continued to be questioned with a push from Sam Sheppard’s son, who was just 7-years-old when his mother was murdered, to file a civil action suit ‘against the State of Ohio Cuyahoga County Prosecutor seeking a declaration of innocence and a determination of wrongful imprisonment’ with regards to his father.
In 1998, the New York Times reported new DNA evidence taken from the exhumed body of Sam Sheppard and compared to DNA at the crime scene confirms he did not kill his wife and his story of an intruder being responsible is the most likely the truth of events on that night in 1954. Furthermore, the blood found was consistent with the blood samples of Richard Eberling and he, therefore, should be considered the prime suspect in the case. After an eight-week trial in 2000 the jury rejected the civil suit of his son seeking a formal declaration of innocence for Sam Sheppard.
Today opinions are still divided on whether Dr. Sam Sheppard was the killer of his wife or whether the murder was carried out by an intruder as he always maintained. What is not in doubt, however, is the ‘carnival’ atmosphere which ran up to and throughout his first murder trial and how this presence and unregulated media attention impacted the fairness of the justice system. In the words of the Supreme Court when overturning his conviction, “If ever there was a trial by newspaper, this is a perfect example.”
It is a case and trial that has been cited thousands of times across many court cases in recent years and used within training environments to highlight just how dangerous pre-trial publicity and speculative and inaccurate reporting can be. A defendant who is facing charges, especially when as serious as murder, must have the opportunity to receive a fair and impartial trial. Afterall, the basis of the criminal justice system is that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.