Dr. Sam Sheppard – The Trial of the Century
By JON ALLAN
The “Trial of the Century” is a phrase used to denote an important trial that gained widespread notice and publicity. During the 20th Century there are a number of trials that legal experts consider fall into this category: The Harry K. Thaw Murder Trial (1906), The Sacco-Vanzetti Trial (1920s), The Leopold-Loeb Case (1924), The Scopes Monkey Trial (1925), The Lindbergh Kidnapping (1932), The Gloria Vanderbilt Custody Trial (1934), The Nuremberg Trials (1945), The Manson Family Trial (1970-71) and The O. J. Simpson Trial (1995). To a lesser degree was the trial of Dr. Sam Sheppard or “Dr. Sam,” the sobriquet he generally went by.
What makes Dr. Sam’s Trial unique from the others is that it ran from 1954-2002 and has never been satisfactorily concluded. It began on July 3-4, 1954 when Dr. Sam found his wife Marilyn dead in their upstairs bedroom. The Sheppards were an upper middle class couple that lived in an upscale home on Lake Eire in Bay View, Ohio, near Cleveland. From the start of whole episode Sheppard told essentially the same story. After having a party Marilyn, went to bed and Sam fell asleep on the day-bed while watching a movie. He awoke up to what he thought was someone calling his name. Running up to the bedroom he saw a shadowy figure that he grappled with until he was knocked out from behind. When he came to he checked bloody scene and found his wife was dead. Finding the back door open he saw a tall, middle aged “bushy haired man” running towards the lake. He caught up with the man and in a second fight was again knocked unconscious. From the time the first policeman arrived the circus began. The house and lawn were soon filled with police, reporters, neighbors and the curious, wandering in and out of the murder scene. With no one in charge Dr. Samuel Gerber, the county coroner, arrived and took over. Gerber immediately believed Sheppard had been the killer. Newspapers, at first sympathetic, were soon pressing in bold headlines for his arrest.
The ensuing trial began on October 18th and turned into what the New York Times described as a “Roman Circus” with a posturing judge, cover-ups and biased media coverage that convicted him in the press. Sheppard was found guilty of second-degree murder and was sentenced to life imprisonment. Within a month his mother had committed suicide and his father had died of cancer. Sheppard’s lawyer, in hindsight had made serious mistakes but he kept appealing.
In 1961 a brash flamboyant young lawyer, F. Lee Bailey took on Sheppard’s case and instituted a number of motions, finally reaching the Supreme Court, which overturned the conviction 8-1. In 1968 he was re-tried and easily acquitted. Sheppard’s freedom was fleeting and depressive. Three days after leaving prison he married Ariane Tebbernjohaans, a stunning blonde 33-year old German divorcee with whom he had been corresponding and become engaged. She also created a controversy when it became known that she was the half-sister of Magda Rictchel, the wife of Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels. Sheppard and a ghost writer quickly wrote a book, Endure and Conquer, which told his side of the murder story and his 12-years of life in prison. Sam and Ariane went on the publicity circuit but were divorced less than two years later. Sheppard went back into medical practice but soon quit after the families of two dead patients sued him for malpractice. He found it hard to find work until he met George Strickland and began a brief career as a professional wrestler going by the name of “The Killer.” Six months before his death he married Strickland’s 20 year old daughter. On April 6, 1970 he died from the affects of alcoholism, having become a two fifth a day drinker plus having an addiction to pills. His son and others have spent years trying to regain Sheppard’s good name, but in a third civil trial he was found “not innocent,” leaving his guilt or innocense still undecided. The last legal case, in 2002, seemingly ended his long trek through the legal system. Sheppard has been the subject of numerous books and articles, documentaries and his case became the basis for the highly popular TV series, The Fugitive (despite the creator’s denials) and several movies.
Sheppard’s autograph is worth well in excess of $100 but by checking booksellers I found several copies of his autobiography, jointly signed by he and Ariane, from their book tour. One copy cost me $8.00. This is a good reminder that hunting through bookstores or the internet can find you historic treasures for little or nothing. In the past month my wife has found 6 signed books in Goodwill Stores, they cost $1-2 and none was worth less than $35.00. Happy hunting.