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The Last Crusade

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When Sam Reese Sheppard walks into a Cleveland courtroom on Jan. 31 for the trial he hopes will exonerate his father once and for all, he is likely to be wearing a black suit. Forty-five years after the July night in 1954 when his pregnant mother, Marilyn, 31, was bludgeoned to death in the family’s Bay Village, Ohio, home and his father, Dr. Sam Sheppard, became the prime suspect, he rarely wears any other color. “I’m still in mourning,” he says. “And I will be until my father’s name is cleared and I am allowed to fully grieve.”

To write a final, redemptive chapter to one of the most publicized crimes of the 20th century, the 52-year-old Oakland dental hygienist is suing the state of Ohio to have the 10-year imprisonment of his father, a once-prominent osteopath, declared wrongful. “That will be an historic moment,” says Sam.

In the case that inspired The Fugitive TV series of the ’60s and the 1993 movie starring Harrison Ford (though Dr. Sheppard, in fact, never fled), Sam’s father was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison following a 54-day trial that became a national spectacle. A decade later, he was released and granted a new trial after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled his right to a fair trial had been compromised by hysterical pretrial publicity. Defended by attorney F. Lee Bailey, Sheppard was acquitted in 1966.

The acquittal was too little, too late to keep the family’s tragedy from being compounded. Shadowed by public doubt of his innocence, Sheppard died in 1970 at 46, an impoverished alcoholic. After regaining his freedom, he had trouble finding work as a doctor and had even stooped to wrestling professionally under the ring name Killer Sheppard. Should the younger Sheppard persuade a jury that his father was wrongfully incarcerated, he could receive up to $250,000 for his father’s imprisonment and damages for income the elder Sheppard lost while behind bars. But it’s not money Sheppard is after, he says: “A declaration of innocence will clear our family name forever.”

To win, Sam’s lawyer Terry Gilbert, a well-known Cleveland attorney, will present a mosaic of modern forensic evidence—including DNA from blood samples found at the crime scene—to prove that the prosecution failed to pursue another viable suspect: window washer Richard Eberling. Eberling died last year, at 68, in an Ohio prison while serving time for beating a woman to death in the 1980s in a Cleveland suburb near the Sheppards’ house. Gilbert will present material, including letters to Sam Reese, in which Eberling revealed details of the Sheppard murder that Sam says only his mother’s killer could have known. In 1959, a ring belonging to Marilyn Sheppard was found when Eberling was arrested for an unrelated theft. And Gilbert will suggest that Eberling lied when he voluntarily told police that his blood was in the Sheppard house because he had cut his finger while washing a window there a few days before the murder. According to Gilbert, police records show that one of Eberling’s employees—not Eberling—washed the windows that day. “We have solved this case,” Sam says. “Eberling did it.”

Conceding nothing, Cuyahoga County prosecutor William D. Mason will aggressively defend the original case. He plans to re-present the 1954 prosecution of Dr. Sheppard and challenge every scrap of new defense evidence. In October prosecutors exhumed Marilyn Sheppard’s body to gather DNA samples. DNA from her 4-month-old male fetus, which was interred in a jar of formaldehyde inside the casket, was too broken down to confirm a theory that Dr. Sheppard was not the father. “I still come to one conclusion,” says Mason. “It’s more likely that Sam committed this murder than anybody else.”

For his part, Sam Reese has never doubted his father’s innocence. Raised by his father’s brother Steve, a psychiatrist, Sam visited his father in prison once a month. They remained close until Dr. Sheppard’s release in 1966. “My dad came out wanting a 7-year-old,” says Sam, not the Boston University student and child of the ’60s the son had become. “We missed each other emotionally, like shooting stars.”

For 18 years after his father’s death, the younger Sheppard would not discuss the case. “Essentially, I figured there was nothing to say,” says Sam, whose life has apparently been shaped by the tragedy’s psychic fallout. His seven-year relationship with a Boston schoolteacher ended in 1980—largely, he says, because he wasn’t ready to have children. (“I had a hard enough time holding my own life together.”)

By 1989, Sam Reese found his voice speaking out against the death penalty, which his father had narrowly escaped. A year later, after reading letters from Eberling in which the prisoner recounted details of the murder, Sam visited Eberling in prison. Struck by the former window washer’s “hypnotic attachment to the case” and his clear recall of the crime scene, Sheppard began his crusade to have his father declared innocent.

“I am the only one left to speak for the three victims of this horrendous murder: my mother, my father and my unborn brother,” he says. “Our family continues to be desecrated by a system that refuses to admit its mistakes.”

Regardless of the trial’s outcome, Sam has already found some of the emotional closure he is seeking. After the exhumation of his mother’s body, he and an undertaker placed the remains of the fetus back inside the casket to the left of his mother. He placed his father’s ashes to her right, then reburied the three. “Finally, I was able to be there for all of them,” he says. “No matter what, they are all together.”

Bruce Frankel

Ken Baker in Oakland, Mary Green in Chicago and Susan Gray in Washington, D.C.