Stay Connected


Advertise With Us

Learn More

Skip to content


A Son's Crusade

Posted on

FOR 41 YEARS THE MEMORIES HAVE haunted Sam Reese Sheppard. The Oakland dental hygienist was just 7 that July night in 1954, when his 31-year-old mother, Marilyn, was murdered in their suburban Cleveland home. He was awakened early the next morning by his uncle Richard, who bundled him out of the house, past the policeman blocking his view of his mother’s room. “Intuitively I knew everything was gone or changed,” he says. “I lost everything overnight.”

Within weeks, Sam’s father, prominent osteopath Dr. Sam Sheppard, 30, was charged with the killing. The savagery of the crime—the pregnant Marilyn had been struck 35 times—combined with courtroom revelations of Sheppard’s womanizing, made his 54-day trial a national spectacle. (The case would later inspire both the TV series and the movie The Fugitive—though Sheppard never took flight.) To his son’s horror, Sheppard was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. “I prayed every night for my dad to get out,” says the younger Sheppard, now 48, who was sent to live with a paternal uncle and aunt. “I’m still coping with the trauma.”

Almost 10 years later, Dr. Sam was released, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that his right to a fair trial had been compromised by the firestorm of publicity. Tried again, he was defended by F. Lee Bailey and acquitted, but his life was in tatters. (“He couldn’t go into a restaurant without people storming out, saying, ‘I’m not going to be in a room with a wife killer,’ ” says the son.) Sheppard descended into alcoholism and died in 1970, when, while sick with the flu, he choked on his own vomit. Sheppard’s son has remained determined ever since to see his father exonerated.

After poring over evidence that he says police and prosecutors overlooked in their rush to obtain a conviction, he has come to believe his mother’s real killer was the “bushy-haired” intruder the doctor had claimed attacked him that night. What’s more, he thinks he knows who the intruder was.

Last month, Sheppard persuaded Cuyahoga County (Ohio) prosecutors to compare the DNA of blood found at the murder scene with a sample taken from convicted murderer Richard Eberling, now 66, who once washed windows at the Sheppard home. He has also asked to have surviving hair and fiber evidence analyzed with modern forensics techniques. “I want to clear the family name,” he says. “Forty-two years of bad press is a long time.”

Regardless of the DNA test results, which are expected in June, Sheppard has already petitioned a Cuyahoga County court to declare his father “innocent” of his mother’s murder—as opposed to simply “not guilty”—which would clear the way for a possibly lucrative wrongful-imprisonment suit against the state.

That may not be easy, given the age of the evidence and how many people still believe Dr. Sheppard was his wife’s killer. “I don’t blame the son for [what he’s] attempting,” says Ohio Court of Appeals Judge Leo M. Spellacy, who served as an assistant prosecutor during Sheppard’s second trial. “[But] the evidence was overwhelming. We tried the right person; the [second] jury felt otherwise.”

At both trials, Sheppard testified that he had been sleeping on a downstairs daybed when he was awakened about 4 a.m. by his wife screaming his name. Racing upstairs, he said, he was attacked and knocked unconscious by the “bushy-haired man.” But police maintained that the philandering Sheppard murdered Marilyn, 31, when she objected to his infidelity. His son doesn’t deny his father had a weakness for women other than his wife. “My father and mother had a kind of open marriage,” says Sam. “She had not been very sexual after my birth. My father was on the prowl because things had shut down at home.” According to police, Dr. Sheppard—after murdering Marilyn—faked his own injuries, which included a chipped vertebra and bruises on his face and body. The T-shirt Sheppard said he had been sleeping in was later found in the lake in front of the house.

In his book Mockery of Justice, published last fall, however, the younger Sheppard and coauthor Cynthia L. Cooper, a New York City lawyer, argue that authorities ignored evidence that might have cleared Sheppard. The police, for instance, said there was no sign of forced entry to the Sheppard home, despite a mark on the basement door that might have indicated a break-in. “They weren’t intentionally framing him,” says the younger Sheppard’s attorney Terry H. Gilbert, “but they were so biased they overlooked other clues, other forensic evidence and other possible suspects.”

Sheppard believes his mother was killed because she caught Eberling stealing. In an interview he conducted with Eberling in an Ohio prison where he is serving a life sentence for an unrelated 1984 murder, Sheppard found that Eberling prided himself on his knowledge of little-publicized details of Marilyn’s killing—for example, how her pink-satin slippers remained unbloodied because they were under the bed. In fact when Eberling was arrested in 1959 on unrelated theft charges, police found two of Marilyn’s rings (stolen after the murder from Uncle Richard’s house) in his home. And his unsolicited explanation during questioning at the time that he had cut his finger on a storm window just days before the murder—which could explain his blood in the house—seems suspicious. “I think we have an overwhelming case,” says Sheppard.

Those arguments have caught the attention of Carmen Marino, 53, a current Cuyahoga County prosecutor. “I don’t think Sam Sheppard did it,” he says. “If we made a mistake, we made a mistake. We shouldn’t be afraid to admit it.”

Such an admission might go a long way toward healing the psychic wounds of the younger Sheppard, who became emotionally aloof after the murder. “I didn’t want to be touched,” he says now. “I refused my aunt’s affection—and hurt her.” In 1955, at age 8, he began visiting his father in the Ohio State Penitentiary. The monthly visits were painful but life-sustaining for them both. “There was this incredible trust and growth that took place,” he says. “We lived for each other. He knew if he gave up, I would not survive.” Ironically the two drifted apart after the acquittal. “He wanted an 8-year-old son,” says Sam, who was then 19. “I was coming into manhood.”

After two malpractice suits forced him to give up medicine, the elder Sheppard dabbled in professional wrestling, remarried and divorced. And the family’s losses continued to mount. Sheppard’s mother and father-in-law committed suicide in 1955 and 1963, respectively, and his father died of a hemorrhaging ulcer in 1955.

Not surprisingly young Sam had trouble finding his way, dropping out of Boston University after two years to join the antiwar movement and wander through Europe on money he had inherited from his maternal grandfather. When his inheritance ran out, Sheppard got a job cleaning airplanes at night at Boston’s Logan Airport, and in 1976 he earned his certificate in dental hygiene.

But it was a 1982 newspaper photo taken outside Texas’s death row that led him to his real vocation. “I saw a wife and two young sons pressed against the wire fence outside the prison and imagined myself as one of those sons, having the dad inside,” he says. “It was like a blow across the face. If I had to face an execution at 14 or 16, I wouldn’t be here. I’d be dead or crazy.”

Now Sheppard travels around the country speaking out against the death penalty. Last year he walked 1,600 miles from Plymouth, Mass., to New Orleans to draw attention to the cause. His personal life is less directed. A six-year romance broke up in 1981 because Sheppard refused to start a family, and he remains uncommitted. “I knew that I was living with turbulent emotions, that it would be irresponsible to have kids,” he says.

A devout Buddhist, he lives alone in a small, sparsely furnished rented room, where he writes poetry and songs and longs for the reprieve that will not only clear his father but will relieve him of his life’s burdensome mission. “The truth,” he says, “will prevail.”

LAIRD HARRISON in Oakland and LEAH ESKIN in Cleveland