On October 18, 1954, neurosurgeon Sam Sheppard went on trial for the July murder of his pregnant wife, Marilyn Reese Sheppard. The murder, as well as the trial, received extensive and prolonged media attention nationwide, and was controversial from the offset.
Sheppard was originally convicted of murder in his 1954 trial. Due to the "carnival atmosphere" of his first trial, he was granted a second trial after 10 years in prison. He was acquitted of all charges and released.
BACKGROUND AND MURDER
Sheppard was born in Cleveland, Ohio, the youngest of 3 songs born to Richard Allen Sheppard, a D.O. He was always an excellent student and played football, basketball and track in high school. He served as class president for 3 years. It was in high school where he met his future with, Marilyn.
Several Ohio colleges offered him athletic scholarships, but he chose, instead, to follow the lead of his father and his older brothers the pursue medicine. He went to Hanover College in Indiana to study pre-osteopathic medicine, and took additional courses at Case Western Reserve University back in his hometown of Cleveland.
After finishing medical school at the Los Angeles Osteopathic School of Physicians and Surgeons, he was awarded his D.O. degree. He did his internship and residency in LA in neurosurgery. He married Marilyn on February 21, 1945, in Hollywood, California.
A few years after their wedding, he moved back to Ohio to work for his father's growing medical practice, Bay View Hospital.
On July 3, 1954, Sheppard and Marilyn had guests and neighbors over to their lakefront home. They were watching the film Strange Holiday together when Sheppard fell asleep in the living room. Marilyn walked the guests out of the house.
Hours later, during the early morning hours of July 4, Marilyn was bludgeoned to death in her bed with an unknown object. The bedroom was covered in blood, and blood was found throughout the home. Items were missing from the home, including Sheppard's watch, keychain, and fraternity ring. The stolen items were found later in a canvas bag in shrubbery behind the Sheppard house.
According to Sheppard, he was sleeping in the living room when he heard cries from his wife. He said he sprinted upstairs where he saw a "white form" in the bedroom, and he was quickly knocked unconscious. When he came to, he saw the intruder downstairs. He chased him to the beach where they "tussled", and Sheppard was once again knocked unconscious.
At 5:40 am, Sheppard called a neighbor and pleaded for him to come to the home. When the neighbor arrived, Sheppard was shirtless, his pants wet with blood. The police arrived after, and Sheppard was described as being disoriented and in shock. The dog was never heard barking to indicate an intruder, and the couple's 7-year-old son was asleep in the adjacent bedroom through the entire ordeal.
THE TRIAL OF SAM SHEPPARD
Of course, Sheppard's story sounded a bit ridiculous, and with no other suspects and a husband with his wife's blood all over him, he was arrested for the murder of his wife. The trial began on October 18, 1954. The media attention was extensive, throughout Ohio and the nation. The media was criticized for painting Sheppard as the only possible suspect. A judge criticized the coverage, saying: "For some reason that newspaper [the Cleveland Press] took upon itself the role of accuser, judge and jury."
The prosecutor in the case was John J. Mahon. During his investigation, he learned that Sheppard had been carrying on a 3-year affair with Susan Hayes, a nurse at his hospital. Their theory was that the affair was Sheppard's motive for killing his wife. He made the most of the case, despite the fact that there wasn't really any evidence against him, except the fact that he was in the home when it happened. He emphasized Sheppard's inability to provide a clear story of what happened that night.
They painted a lot of doubt in Sheppard's story. For instance, if Sheppard had gone to the beach and tussled with the intruder, why was there no sand in his hair or on his body when the police arrived? They asked why an intruder would take important belongings and put them in a bag that he brought, only to discard them in the bushes? They argued that Sheppard had staged the crime scene to look like a burglary.
There was no murder weapon, which was initially a challenge for the prosecution, until Cuyahoga County Coroner Samuel R. Gerber testified that the injuries were consistent with a 2-blade surgical instrument, which implicated Marilyn's surgeon husband. For some reason, though this was a super vague assertion, Sheppard's defense team did not challenge it.
The defense argued that Sheppard had severe injuries, and that the injuries were caused by the intruder. He had suffered a variety of different injuries (concussions, nerve issues, etc.) that would have been difficult to fake, and absent and weak reflexes that would be nearly impossible to fake.
The defense also argued that the crime scene was extremely bloody, but Sheppard only had blood on his pants, which would indicate he was not in the room where it happened.
Sheppard testified during his trial, claiming that her terrified screams roused him from sleep and he ran upstairs. He was knocked out, and then woke up to find the intruder still downstairs, and he chased him to Lake Erie beach.
Honestly, if this is actually what happened, props to the killer because it sounds made up as hell. Your wife is being murdered, and she is screaming so very loud that you wake up from downstairs, but your son a bedroom away hears nothing. Then, you walk in and immediately he knocks you unconscious. Then, you wake up, an unknown amount of time later, and the intruder is still in your house. You spot him again and chase him to the beach where nobody sees you. He beats you up again and then gets away. And also during this, he loaded up some of your personal belongings into a bag he brought with him for the affair, but discarded it in the bushes behind your home. But he left your home when you were chasing him. Seems pretty suspicious.
The jury thought so, too. On December 21, Sheppard was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. After he was convicted, his mother committed suicide. And 11 days after that, his father died from stomach cancer. Sheppard was permitted to attend both funerals. On February 13, 1963, Marilyn's father committed suicide.
Sheppard's lawyer, William Corrigan, spent 6 years making appeals that were all rejected. Corrigan died in 1961, and F. Lee Bailey took over as Sheppard's chief counsel. He appealed that the trial had been a "mockery of justice" that robbed Sheppard of his right to due process due to the media circus surrounding the case. It was argued that the Judge refused to sequester the jury and thus, they were seeing all of the media coverage about the case that largely pointed to Sheppard's guilt. The original ruling was reversed by an 8-1 vote, and Sheppard was released, pending a retrial.
Sheppard spent 10 years behind bars for the murder. 3 days after his release, he married Ariane Tebbenjohanns, a German woman who he had been corresponding with in prison. They'd been engaged since the year prior. They divorced in 1969.
Jury selection for Sheppard's retrial began October 24, 1966. The jury was sequestered this time in light of the continued media interest in the case. The prosecutor argued the same things that were presented 12 years prior, but Bailey was much more aggressive in discrediting testimony. This time, the "surgical weapon" statement didn't glide by, resulting in the coroner admitting that there was no consensus on the murder weapon.
The jury returned after only 12 hours with a "not guilty" verdict. He was released, a free man.
In a super weird turn of events, after his release, Sheppard was briefly a professional wrestler and went by the name "Killer". He wrestled over 40 matches in his career. He used his anatomical knowledge to develop a new submission hold called the "mandible claw" which was popularized later in 1996.
After his release, Sheppard opened a medical practice in the Columbus suburb of Gahanna, Ohio. (Personal anecdote: I got married in Gahanna, Ohio.) Though he tried to continue practicing medicine, the 10 years in jail had deteriorated his skill, and he spent a lot of time drinking. In fact, when he was granted surgical privileges at Youngstown Osteopathic Hospital, he performed a discectomy on a woman and accidentally cut an artery, killing the patient. A few months later, he nicked an artery of a 29-year-old patient who bled to death after the surgery. He resigned after the wrongful death suits started flooding in.
6 months before he died, Sheppard married his 3rd wife, Colleen Strickland. In his final months, he was driving up to 1.5 liters of liquor a day. He was found dead in his home on April 6, 1970, likely due to his alcoholism. He is buried in Columbus, Ohio.
Sheppard's son, Samuel, devoted a considerable amount of time trying to clear his father's reputation. He organized a civil trial for wrongful imprisonment for his father, wherein another potential suspect, the Sheppard's window washer Richard Eberling, was brought up. Throughout his life, Eberling was close to multiple women who died suspicious deaths.
During the civil suit, the defense team argued that Sheppard was the most logical suspect, a textbook domestic homicide They argued that he wasn't happy about the news of his wife's second pregnancy as he wanted to continue his affair(s), but was concerned about the social stigma around divorce.
The verdict was that there was not enough evidence to prove that Sheppard had been wrongfully imprisoned.
Personally, I think he did it. There are 2 main reasons I believe he did it, and I will share those with you now.
He was having at least 1 affair, and perhaps more. I'm not saying that every person who cheats on their wife wants their wife dead, or would kill their wife. But I am saying if you are a grown, adult, married man sleeping with someone else while you have a pregnant wife and child at home, you might not be the best person of all time. And when your wife ends up dead, allowing you to have guilt-free affairs with other women, it seems a little too convenient.
The story is bananas. It makes truly no sense. Imagine being a killer, okay? You have broken into a home. It does not appear there are any signs of forced entry, but you get in. You have brought with you a canvas bag and a weapon. You somehow luck out that the husband is in the living room and not in the bedroom. You begin to bludgeon a woman to death, she screams. Her husband runs upstairs. You hit him over the head, he's unconscious. You continue killing. You steal a few items and place them in the aforementioned canvas bag. You then either a) put said canvas bag in the shrubbery behind the house and come back inside, or b) return later to return the stolen items. You're downstairs in the house, in no hurry to leave the gruesome crime scene you just created. You see the husband come downstairs, now awake. He chases you outside. You run through the streets to the beach. No one sees you. You tussle on the beach, you beat him over the head again. No one sees you again. You run away and get away with the crime for the rest of your life. You did not disturb the family dog or wake their child the whole time, and no one saw you. You're either the weirdest and luckiest killer of all time, or you don't exist.
So what is more likely. The scenario I just laid out for you? Or that a man who was cheating on his pregnant wife killed her in a rage, staged a crime scene and pinned it on someone else? I'm going to go with that one.
It is unfortunate that, despite if he killed Marilyn, he did kill 2 people while operating when he wasn't fit to. Yes, if he didn't do it, I feel very bad for him that his surgical skills deteriorated while he sat in prison for a crime he didn't commit. But performing surgery when you aren't capable is entirely unacceptable. Blood is still on his hands.
There is so much focus on Sheppard in this case, of course, but while we may never know if he did it or not, we do know that Marilyn died a horrific, brutal death at the hands of someone. And that is the real tragedy here.