The Story of Sam Sheppard: Lifelong Murder Suspect Wrongly Imprisoned in a Case of Whodunnit

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Sam Sheppard served nearly a decade in prison for the murder of his wife, Marilyn Reese Sheppard, before having his conviction overturned.

Sheppard was acquitted in a new trial. Sheppard’s son later sued the State of Ohio for his father’s wrongful imprisonment.

The Murder of Marilyn Sheppard

According to True TV, pregnant Marilyn Sheppard was found brutally murdered on July 4th, 1954. Her husband, Dr. Sam Sheppard, claimed that a bushy-haired man attacked him and knocked him unconscious. Marilyn and Sam’s 7-year old son, Sam “Chip” Sheppard stayed asleep through the murder.

Several people handled objects at the crime scene before police could check for fingerprints, including Coroner Gerber. Sheppard was brought to the hospital and treated for bruises, chipped teeth, and a fractured vertebra in his neck.

Press Releases

The Cleveland Press was to have an important impact upon the case. Before any arrests were made, they ran headlines such as “Helping a Murderer Escape,” and “Somebody Is Getting Away With Murder,” as in Sam Sheppard. The last major headline read, “Quit Stalling and Bring Him In!” Not surprisingly, after that one, Sheppard was arrested.

The Inquest

Coroner Gerber ruled that Sheppard’s lawyer could not participate in the inquest. During the inquest, Sheppard said something that would come back to haunt him: that he had never had an affair with coworker Susan Hayes. Since this was later proven to be a lie, it made Sheppard look untrustworthy. It could also be a motive for the murder.

The First Trial: “Roman Circus”

The trial historically was a publicity parade. Photographers and reporters lined the hallways of the courthouse and reported articles labeling Sheppard as the murderer.

The Prosecution: Coroner Gerber testified that he could make out the impression of a surgical instrument in a bloodstain at the crime scene. While Gerber could not say what instrument would have made such a mark, he noted that Dr. Sheppard would have had access to something of that nature.

The Defense: Sheppard’s attorney, William Corrigan, argued that Sam had wounds that could only have been inflicted by the intruder. The crime scene was also extremely bloody, but no blood was found on Sam. Sheppard took the stand and said that he had been sleeping downstairs when he heard his wife scream upstairs. He ran upstairs but was knocked unconscious. When he awoke, he found his wife’s dead body. He ran downstairs and saw a “bushy-haired intruder” whom he chased down to the Lake Erie shore, only to be knocked unconscious again. Two witnesses testified to have seen a similar “bushy-haired man.” Another witness testified that there were cigarettes floating in the toilet at the crime scene, but neither Sheppards smoked.

The Verdict: On December 21, 1954, Sheppard was found guilty of second-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison.

F. Lee Bailey and the Supreme Court

After spending ten years in prison, Sheppard’s new attorney, F. Lee Bailey, filed a petition for appeal. In a landmark case reviewed by the Supreme Court, Sheppard v. Maxwell, the court held that Sheppard was only convicted as the result of the media circus surrounding the trial, and because the jury was not properly sequestered. The judge in Sheppard’s case also did not order the jury to ignore media reports and said himself the first day of the trial that he thought Sheppard to be guilty.

Enter Richard Eberling

In 1959 a man named Richard Eberling was arrested and was found in possession of Marilyn Sheppard’s ring. He confessed that he had been a window washer at the Sheppard’s home just before the murder and that he had cut his finger and dripped blood down the stairs. However, police would ignore Eberling’s potential role in the murder.

The Second Trial: Innocence Proclaimed

The second trial in 1966 differed substantially in the amount of evidence presented on behalf of the defense. Differences between the two trials include:

  • F. Lee Bailey now represented Sheppard
  • Sheppard did not take the stand as he did in the first trial
  • New blood splatters were entered as evidence on Sheppard’s behalf
  • Media was kept out of the court room
  • The jury was properly sequestered
  • Bailey got Coroner Gerber to admit “I hunted all over the United States for an instrument that would fit” but couldn’t find one. The so-called surgical instrument that Dr. Sheppard would have used to kill his wife never existed.
  • Bailey actually believed the murder was committed by a neighbor named Esther Houk, wife of mayor Spencer Houk, who killed Marilyn in a jealous rage after finding that Marilyn and Spencer had an affair. However, this information was not permissible in court.

Sheppard was finally acquitted at the second trial. He told Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show years later that he was planning to shoot himself in court had he been found guilty a second time.

Sheppard’s Later Life and Death

Sheppard wrote a novel about his experiences, briefly became a professional wrestler, and later suffered from extreme alcoholism. He died on April 6th, 1970.

Eberling: Murderer Revealed?

Eberling was arrested in 1984 for murdering an elderly woman. He was also suspected in several other murders. From prison, Eberling exchanged letters with Sam Sheppard’s son, Chip, indicating he knew the truth. Eberling was able to draw a diagram of the Sheppard home from memory.

Eberling said that Marilyn had been killed by Esther Houk out of jealousy, like Bailey previously thought. Eberling also believed that Spencer Houk was in on the murder and was the one who knocked out Sheppard while Esther killed Marilyn. Eberling, however, died in prison in 1998 and was never tried in the Sheppard case. Two witnesses stated after his death that Eberling confessed to killing Marilyn himself.

The Final Judgment

In the late 1990’s Chip Sheppard appealed to the State of Ohio several times for his father’s wrongful imprisonment. While DNA evidence matched Eberling’s blood with blood from the crime scene, and even found Eberling’s seminal fluid inside of Marilyn’s vagina, the samples were considered inadmissible due to being tainted by age. The court also refused to hear about Eberling’s past murder victims.

In 2002 the Supreme Court of Ohio ruled unanimously that only the person who had been imprisoned could make a wrongful imprisonment claim. The 48-year old case was finally over.