December 24, 2001 12:00 PM

by James Neff

It was that year’s trial of the century, and the unsolved murder of Dr. Sam Sheppard’s beautiful wife, Marilyn, remains one of the great true-crime stories. Neff’s review of the facts is a gripping and meticulously researched book.

On the morning of July 4, 1954, Sheppard told police that he had been asleep in the living room of his suburban Cleveland home when he was awakened by his wife’s screams, had run to her aid and been knocked unconscious by an unknown assailant. Later, he discovered that his wife had been bludgeoned to death. His story seemed improbable, and when it emerged that Dr. Sam had dallied with several stunning mistresses, he became the prime suspect. Local newspapers called for his head, and a jury handed it to them. The sentence was life. Represented by the young F. Lee Bailey, Sheppard won a new trial and acquittal in 1966, but public suspicion clung to him until he died an alcoholic at 46 in 1969.

In 1998 his son Sam Reese Sheppard sued to clear the family name, armed with DNA testing and revelations about one Richard Eberling, the Sheppards’ window cleaner in 1954—who was later convicted of an unrelated murder. The portrait of the astonishing Eberling is the highlight of Neff’s admirably fair study. (Random House, $25.95)

Bottom Line: First-degree murder mystery

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