Trials of the Century: A Decade-by-Decade Look at Ten of America's Most Sensational Crimes by Mark J. Phillips and Aryn Z. Phillips is a fascinating history of true crime, justice gone awry, and the media often at its worst (Available July 26, 2016).
In every decade of the twentieth century, there was one sensational murder trial that riveted public attention and at the time was called “the trial of the century.” This book tells the story of each murder case and the dramatic trial—and media coverage—that followed.
Starting with the murder of famed architect Stanford White in 1906 and ending with the O.J. Simpson trial of 1994, the authors recount ten compelling tales spanning the century. Each is a story of celebrity and sex, prejudice and heartbreak, and all reveal how often the arc of American justice is pushed out of its trajectory by an insatiable media driven to sell copy.
The most noteworthy cases are here—including the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, the Sam Sheppard murder trial (“The Fugitive”), the “Helter Skelter” murders of Charles Manson, and the O.J. Simpson murder trial. But some cases that today are lesser known also provide fascinating glimpses into the tenor of the time: the media sensation created by yellow journalist William Randolph Hearst around the murder trial of 1920s movie star Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle; the murder of the Scarsdale Diet guru by an elite prep-school headmistress in the 1980s; and more. The authors conclude with an epilogue on the infamous Casey Anthony (“tot mom”) trial, showing that the twenty-first century is as prone to sensationalism as the last century.
Who Killed Marilyn?—The Sam Sheppard Case
On September 4, 1951, President Harry Truman spoke to the nation on television, and for the first time a broadcast was watched by viewers coast to coast at the same time. America, and especially its media, had come of age.
The 1950s represented a decade of unprecedented prosperity, progress, and optimism. Inflation stayed low, and Americans found jobs. Suburbs boomed. Passenger jets entered service, and Americans traveled. The ravages of polio became a dark horror of the past, and Disneyland a beacon of the future. Bing Crosby and Perry Como gave way to Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry. The launch of Sputnik and the Cold War were coming, but those celebrating the Fourth of July in 1954 felt part of a new and youthful era.
The murder of Marilyn Sheppard in her bedroom during the early-morning hours of July 4, 1954, remains one of America’s most-notorious unsolved crimes. Young and beautiful, she was the mother of one child and pregnant with another, and her bludgeoning death transfixed a nation. Every circumstance of her death and the nine-week trial of her husband that followed became fodder for an unprecedented crush of newspaper coverage.
In what the US Supreme Court later called “a carnival,” hundreds of reporters took up every inch of the Cleveland courtroom, reporting every line of testimony and tracking the judge, jury, lawyers, and witnesses from home to court and back again. No one moved in the corridors without being questioned. Newsmen handled the evidence as it was offered during the proceedings. They set up a television station in a room next to the jury.
On trial was not just Marilyn’s physician husband but the image of America’s newfound suburban lifestyle, with its privilege, comfort, and infidelity. Purveyors of America’s exploding postwar ambition and optimism needed an outlet in the 1950s, and the national media found it in the trial of Dr. Sam Sheppard.
Sam and Marilyn were both raised in Cleveland, Ohio, and had known each other since childhood. Born in 1923, Sam was the youngest of three sons of Dr. Richard Allen Sheppard. His father and both of his older brothers were doctors of osteopathic medicine, and his father ran a prominent Cleveland medical clinic. Good-looking and personable, Sam was elected president of virtually every club he joined and was voted class president for all three years he was in high school. He lettered in varsity football, basketball, and track, and at graduation he was awarded Most Valuable Athlete.
Dark-haired and beautiful, Marilyn was the elder of the two by eighteen months, graduating high school a year before Sam and attending Skidmore College in New York. Sam in his turn enrolled in Hanover College in Indiana, then took supplementary courses at Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Following in the footsteps of his father and brothers, he moved to Los Angeles to finish his education at the Los Angeles Osteopathic School of Physicians and Surgeons, was awarded the D. O. degree, and commenced internship and residency in neurosurgery at Los Angeles County General Hospital. He asked Marilyn to join him in Los Angeles, and they were married on February 21, 1945. Returning to Ohio in 1950, they bought a waterfront home on Lake Road in Bay Village, along the shore of Lake Erie.
Bay Village was in the 1950s an upscale middle-class suburb of west Cleveland, with quiet streets and nice houses, everything that the postwar boom in America promised in its advertising and movies. Village neighbors knew each other and shopped in local stores. Its small five-man police force rarely handled more than accidents and disturbances; until July 4, 1954, it had not investigated a murder. The Sheppard family of physicians was popular and prominent in the small town, and their clinic, Bay View Hospital, was the only hospital in Bay Village.
Sam and Marilyn settled down to what to all appearances was an ideal suburban marriage. In the summer of 1954, Sam was working at the family-owned Bay View Hospital while Marilyn stayed home with their seven-year-old son, Sam Reese Sheppard, then called “Chip.” In July she was four months pregnant.
But all was not ideal in the Sheppard home. Initially denied by him, evidence of Sam’s infidelity was eventually proven at the trial, although the degree of the infidelity was in some doubt. Certainly, he was carrying on a torrid, three-year-long extramarital affair with Susan Hayes, a former nurse at the clinic. According to some, Marilyn was at least resigned to his affairs, if not happy.To others their marital discord was obvious by the summer of 1954.
Saturday, July 3, 1954, was a busy one for Sam. A father brought a young son into the emergency room after the boy had been hit by a utility truck. Sam rushed the small child to the operating room, cut open his chest, massaged his heart, and attempted other resuscitation efforts. None were successful, and the boy died. An exhausted Sam left the hospital that afternoon, stopped to visit his parents, and headed home.
That evening Sam and Marilyn were hosting their neighbors Don and Nancy Ahern and their two children who lived five houses up the lane. The families arranged to meet first for cocktails at the Ahern home, but before they could move on to the Sheppard’s for dinner, another emergency called Sam back to the hospital, where he treated another young boy hurt in an accident.
Both families eventually reconvened for dinner at the Sheppard home that evening. After dinner, Don Ahern took his children home and then returned. Young Chip went up to bed about ten o’clock. Sam and Marilyn Sheppard and Don and Nancy Ahern settled in for the evening to watch a movie on television, but before it was done, Sam stretched out on a daybed in the room and fell asleep. The Aherns left some time after midnight, and Marilyn told Sam that she was going up to bed.
What happened next has spawned thousands of newspaper articles, numerous books, a network television series, and a major motion picture. Marilyn was found in the upstairs bedroom she shared with Sam, dead from the injuries received in a savage beating. There was blood everywhere. She was lying on her back at the foot of her bed, feet dangling to the floor. Her pajama bottoms were removed and her pajama top pushed up over her breasts, her open legs pinned by the horizontal bars of the footboard. It was later determined that she had suffered some thirty-five blows, mostly to the head, with a blunt instrument.
Sam was questioned that morning. He claimed to have been sleeping on the daybed in the living room when he was awakened sometime in the night by Marilyn calling his name. When he reached the top of the stairs by the door to the bedroom, he saw in the dim light a large form with tall, bushy hair and light-colored clothing. Sam testified that he was struck in the back of the neck and lost consciousness.
He regained consciousness an uncertain number of minutes later. In his testimony he explained what happened next:
I looked at my wife, I believed I took her pulse and felt that she was gone. I believed that I thereafter instinctively or subconsciously ran into my youngster’s room next door and somehow determined that he was all right, I am not sure how I determined this. After that, I thought that I heard a noise downstairs. . . .
He testified that he ran back downstairs and chased the bushy-haired intruder down to the Lake Erie beach below his house, struggled with him, and was again knocked out. When he awoke a second time, he was bare from the waist up, his pants and shoes were wet, and light was breaking.
Sam returned to the house and called a friend and neighbor, Spencer Houk, the mayor of Bay Village. “My God, Spen, get over here quick. I think they’ve killed Marilyn.” Mayor Houk and his wife came over at once, finding Sam slumped in an easy chair downstairs and asked, “What happened?” Sam replied, “I don’t know but somebody ought to try to do something for Marilyn.” Mrs. Houk immediately went up to the bedroom, and Sam told Mayor Houk his story. When Mrs. Houk returned, the mayor called the local police, Sam’s brother Richard, and the Aherns.
The local police were the first to arrive. They in turn notified the local coroner, Dr. Sam Gerber, and the Cleveland city police. Dr. Richard Sheppard then arrived, determined that Marilyn was dead, examined his brother’s injuries, and removed him to the nearby hospital operated by the family. When the coroner, the Cleveland police, and other officials arrived, the house and surrounding area were searched, the rooms of the house were photographed, and many persons, including the Houks and the Aherns, were interviewed. The Sheppard home and premises were taken into protective custody and remained so until after the trial.
From the beginning, officials focused their suspicions on Sam, and to some the circumstances warranted it. The excessive number of blows suggested an enraged husband rather than an intruder. While the position of Marilyn’s pajamas implied a sexual assault, there was no evidence of one; her pajamas were unbuttoned rather than ripped, and the position of her legs between the horizontal footrails of the bed made a sexual assault impossible. The house had the appearance of being ransacked, but “tidily,” with drawers pulled out of desks and carefully stacked on the floor, rather than thrown about. Sam’s shotguns were not taken. There were no signs of forced entry to the home, and nothing of value was missing, suggesting a staged burglary. There were no signs of a struggle on the beach. Sam was bare-chested, and his shirt was missing, perhaps to hide bloodstains. And the family dog, Koko, had not barked. The coroner, Dr. Gerber, is reported to have told his men, “Well, it is evident the doctor did this, so let’s go get the confession out of him.” Later that afternoon, the Cleveland police interrogated Sam at some length, at the end of which an officer told him, “I think you killed your wife.”
The Cleveland press followed soon after the police, and the frenzy began. Incredibly, they were given free roam of the house that morning, with photographers even allowed into the murder room while Marilyn’s body still lay there.The media coverage was immediate and overwhelming; over a period of six months the Cleveland Press printed 399 articles about Sam and the death of Marilyn.
And from the beginning the newspapers trumpeted Sam’s guilt. On July 7, the day of Marilyn’s funeral, a newspaper story appeared in which Assistant County Attorney John Mahon, later the chief prosecutor in Sam’s trial, sharply criticized the refusal of the Sheppard family to permit Sam’s immediate questioning. This was simply untrue. Sam had been interrogated by the police four times on July 4, the day of the murder, and again on July 5 and sixth. On July 8, Coroner Gerber and four police officers went to the hospital to interview Sam, and the visit was reported by the newspapers under the headline “Testify Now In Death, Bay Doctor Is Ordered.” On July 9, at the request of the coroner, Sam re-enacted the events at his home before the coroner, police officers, and a group of newsmen, who apparently were invited by the coroner. His performance was reported in detail by the news media accompanied by photographs of the proceeding.On July 10, Sam spent all day at the sheriff’s office being repeatedly questioned and signed a several-page formal statement.
During this same week the newspapers also played up Sam’s refusal to take a lie detector test. A front-page newspaper headline on July 10 announced “Doctor Balks At Lie Test; Retells Story.” The next day, another headline story disclosed that Sam had again refused to take a lie detector test and quoted an assistant county attorney as authority for that story. At the same time, the newspaper reported that other possible suspects had been “cleared” by lie detector tests. One of these persons was quoted as saying that he could not understand why an innocent man would refuse to take such a test. More stories appeared when Sheppard would not allow authorities to inject him with “truth serum.”
On July 20, a front-page editorial in the Cleveland Press entitled “Getting Away With Murder” condemned what it deemed the slow pace at which police were investigating, stating,
In the background of this case are friendships, relationships, hired lawyers, a husband who ought to have been subjected instantly to the same third-degree to which any other person under similar circumstances is subjected, and a whole string of special and bewildering extra-privileged courtesies that should never be extended by authorities investigating a murder—the most serious, and sickening crime of all.
The following day, another page-one editorial was headed “Why No Inquest? Do It Now, Dr. Gerber,” demanding that the coroner call an inquest and subpoena Sam to testify.Smarting from the challenge, Dr. Gerber commenced the inquest the next day in the gymnasium of Normandy High School in Bay Village, and the three-day session was filled with public spectators, press, and high drama. In the front of the room was a long table occupied by reporters, television and radio personnel, and broadcasting equipment. Microphones were placed in front of the coroner and on the witness stand. Crowds lined up outside the school to get seats, and reporters and photographers chronicled all of the testimony. For the first two days, Coroner Gerber elicited the testimony of police officers, family members, and neighbors, including the sixteen-year-old son of Mayor Houk who with other local teenagers had been enlisted by the police to help search the lakefront yard of the Sheppard home.
On the third day of the inquest, Sam was called to testify. Before a swarm of reporters and photographers, he was brought into the gymnasium by police and searched in full view of the spectators, who by then numbered several hundred. Sam’s attorneys were present during the three-day inquest but not permitted to participate. When his principal attorney, William J. Corrigan, attempted to place documents in the record, he was forcibly ejected from the gymnasium. “Remove him,” the coroner ordered, and Corrigan was hauled from the gymnasium while cameras rolled. The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported on its front page,
Spectators cheered wildly yesterday as William J. Corrigan, criminal lawyer representing Dr. Samuel H. Sheppard, was half dragged from the room in the closing moments of the Marilyn Sheppard murder inquest in Bay Village.
Afterward the coroner received hugs and kisses from ladies in the audience.
At the inquest, Sam made the mistake that would haunt him at his trial: he denied his extramarital affair with Susan Hayes. Hayes was a lab technician at Bay View Hospital who had left in 1953 to move to California. Officers quickly tracked her down, and after first denying her relationship with Sam she later admitted all, the officers suggesting that if she did not she would face criminal charges for adultery, then still a crime in Ohio.Susan described the affair to officers, including her many sexual encounters with Sam in his car, in the Bay View Hospital, and on his visits to California. All became fodder for the newspapers.
Media coverage continued to do more than report the case; it influenced and even directed the course of the administration of justice. Just as the Cleveland papers had compelled the coroner to hold the inquest, now the same papers demanded in front-page editorials to know why Sam was not jailed. A July 28 editorial in the Cleveland Press entitled “Why Don’t Police Quiz Top Suspect” remarked of Sam,
Now proved under oath to be a liar, still free to go about his business, shielded by this family, protected by a smart lawyer who has made monkeys of the police and authorities, carrying a gun part of the time, left free to do whatever he pleases as he pleases, Sam Sheppard still hasn’t been taken to Headquarters.
Two days later the Cleveland Press, in a front-page editorial headlined “Why Isn’t Sam Sheppard in Jail?”, demanded action against Sam:
A murder has been committed. You know who the chief suspect is. You have the obligation to question him—question him thoroughly and searchingly—from beginning to end, and not at his hospital, not at his home, not in some secluded spot out of the country. But at Police Headquarters—just as you do every other person suspected in a murder case. What the people of Cuyahoga County cannot understand, and The Press cannot understand, is why you are showing Sam Sheppard so much more consideration as a murder suspect than any other person who has ever before been suspected in a murder case. Why?
In response, police arrested Sam late that night at his father’s house. He was taken to the Bay Village City Hall, where despite the hour hundreds of people, reporters, and photographers were waiting. He was immediately arraigned, denied a delay to secure presence of counsel, and bound over to the grand jury.A preliminary hearing was finally held before Judge William Thomas on August 16. Presented with no evidence by the prosecutor, he ordered Sam released on bail. The newspapers howled. The following day the prosecutor sought an indictment from the grand jury, and the newspapers printed the grand jury testimony, normally sealed. Even more, the pictures, names, and addresses of grand jury members were published in the Cleveland Press. Jurors found themselves telephoned and stopped on the street. The grand jury obediently returned an indictment against Sam, and grand jury foreman Bert R. Winston was quoted as saying, “The pressure on us has been enormous.”
Sam’s trial commenced in October 1954 amid this circus of media attention. It was also two weeks before the November general election of 1954, at which the prosecutor Mahon was a candidate for judge and the trial judge, Edward Blythin, was up for re-election. Twenty-five days earlier, seventy-five individuals were called as prospective jurors. All three Cleveland newspapers published their names and addresses, so that when eighteen days of jury selection began on October 18, 1954, every prospective juror told the court that they had received letters and telephone calls, both known and anonymous, regarding the trial.
From the beginning the press had free range of the courtroom. The courtroom itself was a modest 1,200 square feet, including four rows of seats behind the railing, or bar, that separated the spectators from the judge, jury box, and the well, where the prosecution and defense were seated. The first three rows of audience seats were assigned to the press, and only the last row assigned to family. When those three rows proved insufficient for all of the media representatives that clamored for seats, the extraordinary remedy was adopted of placing a twenty-foot-long temporary table in the space between the bar and the tables occupied by the prosecution and defense, and packing that table with reporters. Seated where they were, the press could hear the lawyers talk to each other and to Sam, and view and handle all of the evidence. One end of the extemporary press table ended only three feet from the jury box.
Representatives of the news media also used every room on the courthouse floor, including the room where cases were ordinarily called and assigned for trial. Private telephone lines and telegraphic equipment were installed in these rooms so that reports from the trial could be speeded to the papers. Station WSRS was permitted to set up broadcasting facilities on the third floor of the courthouse next to the jury room, where the jury rested during recesses in the trial. Newscasts were made from this room throughout the trial, even while the jury deliberated.
The tenor of the news reporting continued to be highly prejudicial to Sam, especially in light of the fact that the jury consisted of unsequestered townsfolk who knew his story and read the daily papers. On October 23, as the trial got underway, the Cleveland Press printed a page-one broadside against Sam:
BUT WHO WILL SPEAK FOR MARILYN?
It’s perfect, you think at first, as you look over the setting for the Big Trial. The courtroom is just the size to give a feeling of coziness and to put the actors close enough to each other so that in moments of stress the antagonists can stand jaw to jaw and in moments of relaxation can exchange soft words of camaraderie. . . . These provide the perfect background for the most perfect character of all—the accused. Was there ever more perfect typing? Was there ever a more perfect face for the enigma that is the Big Trial? . . . Is he the one? Did he do it? Plus of course, the other characters. The accused’s two brothers. Prosperous, poised. His two sisters-in-law. Smart, chic, well-groomed. His elderly father. Courtly, reserved. A perfect type for the patriarch of a staunch clan.
Then it hits you again. No there’s something—and someone missing.
There is no grieving mother—she died when Marilyn was very young. There’s no revenge-seeking brother nor sorrowing sister. Marilyn was an only child. Her father is not here. Why is his own personal business.
What then, you wonder, will be the other side. . . .
Here is the complete story of Marilyn Reese Sheppard. How she lived, how, we think, she died. Her story will come into this courtroom through our witnesses. Here is how it starts: Marilyn Sheppard, nee Reese, age 30, height 5 feet, 7 inches, weight 125 pounds, brown hair, hazel eyes. On the morning of July 4 she was murdered in her bedroom.
Then you realize how what and who is missing from the perfect setting will be supplied. How in the Big Case justice will be done. Justice to Sam Sheppard. And to Marilyn Sheppard.
At twenty-eight days of witness testimony, the trial of Sam Sheppard was said to have been the longest criminal trial on record in the United States at the time.Sam was represented by the legal team of Corrigan, Corrigan’s young son Bill Jr., recently graduated from law school, and attorneys Fred Garmone and Arthur Petersilge. The prosecution team included Mahon, who was elected to a judgeship in the middle of the trial, Gertrude Bauer, whom Mahon would marry days after the trial ended, and Saul S. Danaceau and Thomas J. Parrino, both later judges. Also at the prosecution table was Cleveland Police Inspector James McArthur. His pretrial statements that there was no proof of anyone else being in the Sheppard house at the time of the murder had been published by the local newspapers.
The prosecution began with photos of Marilyn’s murder projected on a screen in the courtroom, accompanied by testimony by Dr. Lester Adelson, the chief pathologist in the coroner’s office who had conducted the autopsy on Marilyn and testified about the injuries she suffered. A wax model of Marilyn’s head was used to demonstrate the murder blows. Neighbors Don and Nancy Ahern each testified how Sam had fallen asleep while they watched a movie the evening before the murder, still wearing his jacket, which he was not wearing after his fight with the intruder. The jacket was found neatly folded on the daybed, a fact the prosecution offered as evidence that Sam’s actions on the night of the murder were calm and unhurried. Nancy Ahern testified that Marilyn had confided to her a rumor that she had heard that Sam was considering a divorce but had decided against it.
Esther and Spen Houk were called to testify regarding their meetings with Sam on the morning of July 4. Esther was asked if Sam’s shoulder was dry when she touched it, and she answered that it was, to the point that he was not wet when he returned from his altercation with the bushy-haired assailant at the beach. Mayor Houk, over objections, was allowed to testify that he had voluntarily taken a lie detector test in the days that followed Marilyn’s murder, in sharp contrast to Sam’s well-published refusal to do the same. Their son, Larry Houk, testified about finding a green bag in the Sheppard yard that contained Sam’s watch and jewelry, which the prosecution considered a ruse.
The Houks were followed to the witness stand by Bay Village police officers Fred Drenkhan, Jay Hubach, and John Eaton, and firemen Richard Callihan and Richard Sommer. Then came Cleveland officers Henry Dombrowski, Jerry Poelking, Michael Grabowski, Pat Gareau, and Robert Schottke, along with county deputy sheriffs Carl Rossbach and Dave Yettra. The officers testified as to their actions on the morning of the murder, and that there was no sign of forcible entry to the Sheppard home.
Coroner Dr. Gerber then came to the stand, and he dropped a bombshell. He testified that his examination of the bloodstains on a pillow case on Marilyn’s bed were made by the imprint of a long, hinged, two-pronged weapon, which he identified as a surgical instrument. Because no such weapon or instrument had been found in or outside the house despite an intensive search, including the dredging of Lake Erie in front of the Sheppard’s home, he could not describe the instrument with greater particularity. Nevertheless, his testimony strongly implicated Marilyn’s surgeon husband as the perpetrator.
Then came Susan Hayes, who testified regarding her affair with Sam, with its damaging effect on his credibility after his denial of the relationship with her.
The defense’s presentation, in turn, was light on scientific evidence. The law in 1954 did not require prosecutors to turn over evidence in a trial to the defense team, and the Sheppard home had been sealed against examination by experts hired by Sam and his attorneys. Evidence of the presence of a third-party intruder that might have cast doubt on Sam’s guilt, including a trail of blood left by the assailant, was inaccessible to those experts. Though bleeding profusely, Marilyn had never escaped the bedroom, and Sam had no open wounds.
Instead, the defense featured medical witnesses who testified that Sam’s injuries the morning of the murder were of a type inconsistent with the struggle that Marilyn may have put up, and character witnesses who testified in Sam’s defense. Dr. Charles Elkin, who had examined Sam on the first days following the murder, and five other doctors, a dentist, and several nurses were called by the defense for a thorough detailing of Sam’s injuries, which included injuries to his spine and swelling at the base of the skull. The prosecution in response characterized those injuries as self-inflicted. Members of Sam’s family testified. A long string of character witnesses testified to Sam’s good nature and the general normality of his relationship with Marilyn. Members of her family also testified as to her buoyant mental state in the days preceding the murder in an attempt to deflect any suggestion of marital discord.
Next the defense elicited the testimony of people who had been in the area the night of the murder. Various neighbors testified as to when lights went on and off at the residence. Fishermen from the lake testified to seeing teenage boys on the park pier early in the morning, and teenagers testified as to activities and movements in the immediate area. Drivers who had seen a stranger walking on Lake Road in the morning were called to give their testimony.
Then Sam testified on his own behalf, taking the stand for three days. Under cross-examination from the prosecution, his story of the events of that night did not change.Both sides made their closing arguments, prosecutor Mahon concluding, “Why, this house was full of phantoms that night, I think, ladies and gentlemen. . . .”
During the course of the trial, all three Cleveland newspapers maintained their relentless call for Sam’s conviction. Banner headlines included:
SAM CALLED A JEKYLL-HYDE BY MARILYN,
COUSIN TO TESTIFY
CALLS DR. SAM LOVE SLAYER, ASKS DEATH
LAB MEN READY ATTACK ON SAM
STORY OF ILLICIT ROMANCE WILL CLIMAX TRIAL
DR. SAM FACES ATTACK ON LOVES
SAM FAKED BURGLARY TO COVER UP MURDER
At one point, a picture of Marilyn’s bloodstained pillow was published on the front page, after having been doctored to more clearly show the imprint of the alleged “surgical instrument.”
Syndicated columns and news agency reports made the case almost as well-known in every community of the nation as it was in Cleveland. Dorothy Kilgallen, known for her celebrity role on the television game show What’s My Line?, covered the trial and later expressed shock at the guilty verdict. But it wasn’t until years later that Kilgallen also described how the judge called her into his chambers on the first day of the trial. They shook hands, and he asked her, “What brings you to Cleveland?” She replied that she was there to cover the trial and told Judge Blythin that she was intrigued by the mystery of who had committed the murder. The judge responded, “Mystery? It’s an open and shut case. . . . He is guilty as hell. There is no question about it.”
In the middle of the trial, national broadcaster Walter Winchell aired a story about a woman under arrest in New York who claimed she had a child by Sam. It turned out to be false.
After five days of deliberation, on December 21 the jurors came back with a verdict of second-degree murder, intentional but without premeditation.
The Sheppard family was, as expected, crushed and distraught by the jury’s verdict. Sam’s mother, Ethel, shot herself to death three weeks later. His father, Richard, died of stomach cancer eleven days after Ethel. By contrast, the prosecutors Bauer and Mahon, the latter now a judge-elect, were able to celebrate. The two married before Christmas.
But mostly, the trial was a bonanza for the local newspapers. Before the murder, from March 1953 to March 1954, the Cleveland Press had suffered a circulation decline.But all three Cleveland newspapers reported extraordinary circulation gains during the Sheppard trial, and the Cleveland Press sold 30,000 extra copies on the day of the verdict.
Sam Sheppard spent ten years in a maximum-security state penitentiary in Columbus, Ohio, in all of which time his remaining family and legal team sought to overturn his conviction. On January 3, 1955, the trial court overruled the motion for a new trial, which had been based on numerous decisions of error occurring during the trial and deliberation, including Sam’s arraignment before trial on a capital charge in the absence of counsel, the inability of Corrigan to represent him during the inquest, the refusal of the court to change the venue of the trial in the face of massive adverse publicity, the publication of the list of potential jury members in advance of the trial, the failure to sequester the jurors during the trial, the trial judge’s decision to set aside the major portion of the courtroom to representatives of the news media, the police seizure of Sam’s house and excluding him and his representatives from it for the duration of the trial, and other claims. On May 9, 1955, the trial court denied a supplemental motion for a new trial on the grounds that Sam’s retained experts had since investigated the house and could demonstrate the presence of blood in the house that did not come from either Marilyn or Sam. In July 1955, the Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction and the denial of the motion for a new trial. On May 31, 1956, the Ohio Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals, with two judges dissenting. On November 14, 1956, the US Supreme Court denied a petition for certiorari and subsequently denied an application for a rehearing. On September 5, 1960, the Ohio Supreme Court denied an application for habeas corpus.
After six years of fighting on Sam’s behalf, defense lawyer William Corrigan died in July 1961, and attorney F. Lee Bailey, just a year out of law school, was selected by Sam’s brother Stephen to prosecute the appeal. Bailey was then in his early thirties. Brilliant, talented, and always controversial, he had studied at Harvard but had dropped out in 1952 to join the Marine Corps, where he received aviator wings in 1954. He received his law degree from Boston University, ranked first in his graduating class in 1960.
By 1963, Sam and Bailey had moved their arguments to the federal courts. On April 11, 1963, they filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the US District Court, contending that he had not received a fair trial. The court granted the writ, but the United States Court of Appeals reversed it. The matter finally reached the United States Supreme Court in 1966 and the now-famous decision in Sheppard v. Maxwell46 handed down, the court ruling,
Since the state trial judge did not perform his duty to protect Sheppard from the inherently prejudicial publicity which saturated the community and to control disruptive influences in the courtroom, we must reverse the denial of the habeas petition. The case is remanded to the district courtroom with instructions to issue the writ and order that Sheppard be released from custody unless the State puts him to its charges again within a reasonable time.
The US Supreme Court awarded Sam a retrial. The case established Bailey’s reputation as a skilled defense attorney and was the first of many high-profile cases, including the defense of the confessed Boston Strangler, the defense of US Army Captain Ernest Medina in the My Lai Massacre court martial in 1971, the unsuccessful defense of Patty Hearst in her prosecution for armed bank robbery after being kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army, and the acquittal of O. J. Simpson in 1995.
The State of Ohio did retry Sam soon after. At his new arraignment on September 8, 1966, Sheppard loudly pleaded “not guilty,” with attorney Bailey by his side. Unlike in the original trial, this time neither Sheppard nor Susan Hayes took the stand, a strategy that proved to be successful when a not guilty verdict was returned on November 16, 1966.
Sam’s life never returned to the normality that it had before the early-morning hours of July 4, 1954. Days after his release from prison following the Supreme Court’s decision in the summer of 1966, Sam married Ariane Tebbenjohanns, a German divorcee who had corresponded with him during his time in prison. Tebbenjohanns endured her own bit of controversy shortly after her relationship with Sam was announced, confirming that her half-sister was Magda Ritschel, the wife of Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels. Tebbenjohanns emphasized that she held no Nazi views. Their marriage short-lived, Sam and Tebbenjohanns divorced on October 7, 1969.
After his acquittal, Sam coauthored Endure and Conquer, presenting his side of the case and giving insight into his years in prison. F. Lee Bailey wrote the foreword. Sam also returned briefly to medicine in Youngstown, Ohio, but was sued twice for medical malpractice by the estates of dead patients and left the practice.Later, Sheppard enjoyed a brief career as a professional wrestler, going by the name The Killer, teamed with partner George Strickland in matches across the United States. Just six months before his death, Sheppard married George’s daughter, Colleen Strickland.
Sam died of liver failure on April 6, 1970, having by the end of his life become an alcoholic drinking as much as two-fifths of liquor a day. He was forty-six and had enjoyed his liberty for only four years. He was buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Gardens in Columbus, Ohio, where his body remained until 1997 when it was exhumed for DNA testing as part of the lawsuit brought by his son, Sam Reese Sheppard, to clear his father’s name. After the tests, the body was cremated, and the ashes were laid to rest in a mausoleum at Knollwood Cemetery in Mayfield Heights, Ohio, next to those of Marilyn.
In 1963, ABC premiered The Fugitive, the drama series created by Roy Huggins, starring David Janssen as Richard Kimble, a doctor falsely accused of his wife’s murder and given the death penalty. While Kimble is en route to death row, his train derails and crashes, allowing him to escape and begin a cross-country search for the real killer, a one-armed man played in the series by Bill Raisch. The series was a hit and ran for four seasons, ranked as one of TV Guide’s 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time. As originally conceived, the story called for the murder of Dr. Kimble’s wife to have been committed by a “red-haired” man, but studio lawyers told Huggins that it was too similar to the “bushy-haired” intruder described by Sam.
Huggins denied basing the series on Sam Sheppard, although the show’s music supervisor, Ken Wilhoit, was married to Susan Hayes, Sam’s lover and the star witness in the 1954 trial.
The series was remade as a 1993 feature film starring Harrison Ford as Dr. Richard Kimble. Grossing $368,000,000 in box-office business from a $44,000,000 budget, the film was a major financial success and was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
With the acquittal of Sam Sheppard in the second trial in 1966 came renewed interest in who else might have committed the crime. There were many people, particularly in the Cleveland area, who were convinced that Sam was nonetheless guilty. Those who prosecuted Sam clearly believe him to be the murderer, notwithstanding his acquittal.But a number of other suspects raised speculation. In the weeks and months that followed the crime, numerous tips had been received and several people actually confessed to Marilyn’s bludgeoning, but all were dismissed as either attention seekers or individuals with psychiatric problems. There was some interest in a hitchhiking drifter named Donald Joseph Wedler who was in Bay Village on the night of the murder and confessed to have beaten a woman to death with a pipe. Although several aspects of his statement matched the circumstances of Marilyn’s murder, many did not, including the number of blows inflicted. He was not charged with the crime.
Soon after Sam’s acquittal, F. Lee Bailey compelled a grand jury to hear witnesses regarding his favorite perpetrators, Spencer and Esther Houk. Bailey recounted the testimony of Jack Krakan, a bread delivery man who had testified that he had seen Spencer Houk embracing and kissing Marilyn. On one occasion, he said, he had observed Marilyn give Houk a key to the house, which fit well with the police’s theory that there was no evidence of a break-in. The grand jury heard a few witnesses, including Mayor Houk, but took no action.
Sixteen years later, in November 1982, the new owners of the Houk residence on Lake Road in Bay Village found a buried pair of fireplace thongs, which matched the description Dr. Sam Gerber gave in the first trial of the instrument that left the bloody image on Marilyn’s pillow. Both of the Houks were by then deceased, and the evidence was not considered conclusive.
But as a result of a lawsuit filed against the State of Ohio by Sam Reese Sheppard to clear his father’s name in October 1995, more than forty years after the murder and twenty-five years after Sam’s death, renewed attention focused on Richard Eberling, a petty thief and convicted murderer who boasted in prison that he had killed Marilyn and beaten Sam when he tried to interfere. Eberling had been employed in the village as a window washer in the summer of 1954, and had been in the Sheppard home on the second or third of July.
Eberling was a behaviorally handicapped young man raised in a series of foster homes, eventually placed with George and Christine Eberling, an older couple who farmed in Bay Village, Ohio. As early as his childhood, deaths began to occur around him. In 1946, while Eberling was still living with his foster parents, George Eberling died while suffering from pneumonia, but it was discovered that he had ingested poison left on his bedside nightstand. After reaching adulthood, Eberling started a window washing business, covering a long string of petty thefts from the homes he serviced. When he was arrested in 1959 on charges of theft, he was in possession of one of Marilyn’s rings. In his examination, he told investigators that while cleaning the windows in the Sheppard house on either July 2 or July 3 he had cut himself, and that was why his blood was present on the floors of the house. Despite the suspicious nature of his confession, Eberling was not charged, Sam already having been convicted and more than four years into his sentence.
There were other surprising coincidences between Marilyn’s murder and Eberling. Barbara Kinzel, a nurse at the Sheppard’s Bay View Hospital, died while riding as a passenger in her Ford convertible when it veered off a Michigan highway and struck a parked vehicle. Eberling was driving. Kinzel, who had cared for Sam following Marilyn’s murder, claimed that she felt Sam was innocent based on the severity of his injuries, and after her comments had been circulated in newspapers, Eberling began calling on her, and the two started dating. An autopsy performed on Kinzel raised questions as to the nature of her injuries, including a broken neck, which were inconsistent with the circumstances of the accident, but Eberling was not charged.
By 1962 Eberling had inserted himself into the life of one Ethel May Durkin, a wealthy, childless widow who lived in Lakewood, Ohio. Durkin’s sister, Myrtle Fray, took an instant dislike to Eberling, and she was found savagely beaten about the head and strangled in her apartment on May 20, 1962, after she had gone to bed. Thirty years later, Eberling wrote that Fray was killed in the same manner as Marilyn Sheppard.Another of Durkin’s sisters died under suspect conditions in March 1970 while living with Durkin in her Lakewood home. This time the death was attributed to injuries sustained in a fall down basement steps that broke both legs and arms. By the time of this second death, Eberling was systematically looting Durkin’s assets. Soon after, Durkin also began having a number of accidents that resulted in injuries, including falls down flights of stairs. On November 15, 1983, paramedics were called to the Durkin home, and they found her facedown on a hardwood floor. Eberling claimed that she had fallen while rising from a chair. X-rays revealed that her neck had been broken, and Durkin died from her injuries six weeks later. Her will, which had been forged by Eberling, left the bulk of her estate to him. Also in the will were instructions that she was to be buried with her jewelry and her favorite mink coat, but before the casket was sealed Eberling removed both the jewelry and the mink coat from her body. When Durkin’s corpse was exhumed for examination, an autopsy revealed that Durkin had been struck in the neck from behind, and Eberling was charged with her murder and convicted in July 1989. In the investigation, Kathy Wagner, a health aide hired by Eberling, quoted him as confiding that he had killed Marilyn and struck Sam in the head with a steel pail, adding, “You didn’t hear that.” Eberling died in prison on July 25, 1998.
In 1995 Sam’s son, Sam Reese Sheppard, used his father’s estate to file a lawsuit against the State of Ohio for Sam’s wrongful imprisonment. Under state law, Sheppard had to prove that his father was innocent, a far more difficult legal standard than that of Sam’s retrial, where acquittal was required unless he was found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Young Sheppard and his lawyers focused their case on Eberling, claiming that recently performed DNA testing concluded that the blood found in the Sheppard home on the night of Marilyn’s murder was his. Sam Reese Sheppard had his father’s remains exhumed in order to conduct DNA testing and exclude Sam’s blood from the bloodstains found in the home. In response, the State of Ohio had the bodies of Marilyn and the fetus she was carrying exhumed in 1999 so that they could perform their own DNA tests.
The wrongful imprisonment civil trial commenced in February of 2000, with lawyers for Sam Reese Sheppard attempting to prove that Eberling had committed the murder and prosecutors for the State of Ohio maintaining that Sam had killed his wife. F. Lee Bailey was the first witness. After two months of testimony, seventy-six witnesses, and hundreds of exhibits, the jury deliberated just three hours on April 12, 2000 before returning a verdict in the favor of the State of Ohio.In February 2002, the Eighth District Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the State on the procedural grounds that a wrongful imprisonment claim could be made only by the person actually imprisoned, and not by a family member such as Sam Reese Sheppard. Legal standing to bring such a claim, the court of appeals found, died with the person who had been imprisoned. The appeals court decision was affirmed by the Supreme Court of Ohio later that year.
Nearly fifty years after Marilyn’s brutal murder, the trials finally came to an end. After tens of thousands of transcript pages in the numerous trials, ten books, thousands of newspaper articles, a television series, and a major motion picture, no one knows who killed her.
The bludgeoning death of Marilyn Sheppard and the spiraling descent of her husband from respected physician to prisoner, wrestler, and finally ignominious death have fascinated Americans for two generations. Something intangible about the Sheppards, other than just celebrity, combines into an elixir that continues to enthrall. And in that mix it’s impossible to separate the story from the storyteller, to determine if the national media found a story of interest to its readers and reported it, or if they fanned a tiny ember into an undeserved firestorm. Jack P. DeSario and William Mason in Dr. Sam Sheppard On Trial, their recounting of the 2000 trial of the civil suit filed by Sam Reese Sheppard, in which Mason was lead counsel for the State of Ohio, write that when the pretrial proceedings got underway in 1999, the prosecutor’s office was handling several gruesome cases, including that of Mary Jo Pesho, a Parma wife and mother who had been abducted at a mall and tortured, raped, and murdered in the back of a van, and that of Thomas McCarthy, a serial rapist who broke into a young woman’s home, hung her up by her thumbs, and tortured and raped her. Either of these stories would have warranted extensive media coverage, yet when Marilyn’s casket was transported that same year to the coroner’s office for DNA testing, the drive turned into a public spectacle, with fleets of satellite trucks, television vans, and helicopters.
Ohio Supreme Court Justice James Finley Bell Jr. captured it well in the opening paragraph of his decision in 1956:
Murder and mystery, society, sex and suspense were combined in this case in such a manner as to intrigue and captivate the public fancy to a degree perhaps unparalleled in recent annals. Throughout the preindictment investigation, the subsequent legal skirmishes and the nine-week trial, circulation-conscious editors catered to the insatiable interest of the American public in the bizarre. . . . In this atmosphere of a “Roman Holiday” for the news media, Sam Sheppard stood trial for his life.
Copyright © 2016 Mark J. Phillips & Aryn Z. Phillips.
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Mark J. Phillips has been practicing law for thirty-five years with the Law Offices of Goldfarb, Sturman & Averbach in Encino, California. He is also an adjunct professor at the University of West Los Angeles College of Law, where he teaches courses on trusts and estates.
Aryn Z. Phillips is a graduate student at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, where she is focusing on social and behavioral sciences.