My watch list  

Sam Sheppard

Samuel Holmes Sheppard
BornDecember 29 1923(1923-12-29)
DiedApril 6 1970 (aged 46)
Alias(s)The Killer (as wrestler)
Conviction(s)1954 (acquitted on retrial, 1966)
PenaltyLife imprisonment (overturned)
OccupationPhysician, professional wrestler
SpouseMarilyn Reece Sheppard (__-1954);
Ariane Tebbenjohanns Sheppard (1964-1969);
Colleen Strickland Sheppard (1969-1970)
ParentsThomas S. Reese, Ethel Niles Sheppard
ChildrenSam Reese "Chip" Sheppard

Samuel Holmes Sheppard (December 29 1923(1923-12-29) – April 6 1970)[1] was an American osteopathic physician[2] involved in a famous and controversial murder trial when he was convicted of the murder of his pregnant wife, Marilyn Reese Sheppard. Sheppard served almost a decade in the Ohio Penitentiary before his 1954 conviction was overturned and declared a miscarriage of justice. In 1966, he was acquitted in a new trial.

In 2000, Sheppard's son Sam Reese Sheppard, who had been seven years old at the time of his mother's murder, sued the State of Ohio for his father's alleged wrongful imprisonment. After a 10-week-long trial, a civil jury unanimously ruled against him.


The murder

Sheppard was convicted of killing his pregnant wife Marilyn Sheppard in their home in the early morning hours of July 4, 1954. Sheppard claimed his wife was killed by a bushy-haired man who also attacked him and twice knocked him unconscious. The Sheppards' lakefront home was in Bay Village, Ohio, a suburb just west of Cleveland. Sam Reese (Chip) Sheppard slept through the night, just down the hall from the bedroom in which his mother was murdered.


Sheppard was brought to trial in the autumn of 1954. The case is notable for its extensive publicity and circus-like atmosphere. Many have compared the O.J. Simpson trial to it, in terms of the often lurid press coverage it generated.

Some newspapers and other media in Ohio were accused of bias against Sheppard and inflammatory coverage of the case, and were criticized for immediately labeling Sheppard as the only viable suspect. Some believe that a specific headline from the Cleveland Press, "Why Isn't Sam Sheppard in Jail?," clearly indicated the bias of the media against Dr. Sheppard [3],[4]. Others have cited tension between Sheppard and the coroner Samuel Gerber as a factor in the case. Although a surgeon, Sheppard was a D.O., or Doctor of Osteopathy, whereas Gerber was more mainstream as an M.D. Today, D.O.s enjoy equal rights as fully licensed physicians, but this was not the case in the 1950s, when some M.D.s held D.Os in low regard.

The high-profile nature of the case proved to be a boon to lead prosecutor John J. Mahon, who was running for a seat on the Cuyahoga County, Ohio Court of Common Pleas as the trial began. Mahon won his seat, and served until his death on January 31, 1962.

It was revealed during the course of the investigation and trial that Sheppard had a three-year-long extramarital affair with Susan Hayes, a nurse at the hospital where Sheppard was employed. The prosecution argued that the affair was Sheppard's motive for killing his wife.

Sheppard's attorney, William Corrigan, argued that Sam had severe injuries including broken teeth and spinal and neck lacerations, and suggested that those injuries were inflicted by the intruder. The defense further argued that the crime scene was extremely bloody, and except for a small spot on his trousers, Sheppard had no blood on him. Corrigan also argued that two of Marilyn's teeth were pulled out of her mouth, suggesting she had bitten her assailant. He told the jury that Sheppard had no open wounds. (Some observers have questioned the accuracy of claims that Marilyn Sheppard lost her teeth while biting her attacker, arguing that her missing teeth are consistent with the severe beating Marilyn Sheppard took to her face and skull) [5].

Sheppard took the stand in his own defense. He testified that he had been sleeping downstairs on a daybed when he woke to his wife's screams. He said that he ran upstairs and was knocked unconscious by someone. When he came to, he found his wife already bloodied and dead. He ran back downstairs and chased what he variously described as a "bushy-haired intruder," a "biped" or a "light-topped form" down to the Lake Erie beach below his home, before being knocked out again. The defense called eighteen character witnesses for Sheppard, and two witnesses who said that they had seen a bushy-haired man near the Sheppard home on the day of the crime.

The jury was not convinced. On December 21, 1954, it found Sheppard guilty of second-degree murder, and he was immediately sentenced to life in prison. Soon after his conviction, Sheppard twice received devastating family news: on January 7, 1955, his mother shot herself; 11 days later, his father died of cancer. In both cases, he was permitted to attend the funerals but was required to wear handcuffs.

In 1959, Sheppard voluntarily took part in cancer studies by the Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research, allowing live cancer cells to be injected into his body. By June, 1961, his brother Dr. Stephen Sheppard's fears that Sheppard had contracted the disease as a result of the experiments were discounted after medical tests.

After more than six years of appeals, Corrigan died on July 30, 1961. Months later, F. Lee Bailey took over as Sheppard's chief counsel.

Family tragedies also continued during this period: In October, 1961, Sheppard's brother Stephen was found liable for negligence in a wrongful death lawsuit and ordered to pay $50,000 to the deceased patient's family. Then, on February 13, 1963, his late-wife's father, Thomas S. Reese, committed suicide in an East Cleveland, Ohio motel.

Acquittal and later life

Sheppard served ten years of his sentence. After several appeals were rejected, his petition for a writ of habeas corpus was granted by a United States district court judge on July 15, 1964. The State of Ohio was ordered either to free Sheppard or to grant him a new trial. The case was reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court in Sheppard v. Maxwell, 384 U.S. 333 (1966). The Court held that Sheppard's conviction was the result of a trial in which he was denied due process. The decision noted, among other factors, that a "carnival atmosphere" had permeated the trial, and that the trial judge had refused to sequester the jury, had not ordered the jury to ignore and disregard media reports of the case, and on the very first day of the trial had said, "Well, he's guilty as hell. There's no question about it."

Just three days after his release, Sheppard married Ariane Tebbenjohanns, a German divorcee who had corresponded with him during his time in prison. The two had been engaged since January, 1963. Tebbenjohanns endured her own bit of controversy shortly after the engagement had been announced, confirming that her half-sister was Magda Ritschel, the wife of Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels. However, Tebbenjohanns emphasized that she held no Nazi views. On October 7, 1969 Sheppard and Tebbenjohanns divorced [6].

At his new arraignment on September 8, 1966, Sheppard loudly pleaded "not guilty" with his attorney, F Lee Bailey, by his side. Jury selection got under way on October 24, and opening statements began eight days later. Unlike in the original trial, 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. The trial was very important to Bailey's rise to prominence among American criminal defense lawyers. It was during this trial that Paul Kirk presented the bloodspatter evidence he collected in Sheppard's home in 1955 which proved crucial to his acquittal.

Just three weeks later, Sheppard appeared as a guest on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. In 1975, Carson told guest George Peppard (who played Sheppard in a TV movie), that the doctor had told him during this conversation that had he been found guilty, he would have shot himself in court.

Sheppard was finally exonerated after more than 12 years, and helped write the book Endure and Conquer, which presented his side of the case and gave insight into his years in prison. He also returned briefly to medicine in Youngstown, Ohio, but was sued twice for medical malpractice by the estates of dead patients.

Later, Sheppard was briefly a professional wrestler, going by the ring name The Killer, and teaming with partner George Strickland in matches across the United States. In Mick Foley's book, Foley recounts Jim Cornette's telling him about Sheppard inventing the mandible claw, a submission hold Foley later made famous.

Just six months before his death, Sheppard married Strickland's 20-year-old daughter Colleen [7]. He died of liver failure on April 6, 1970, having become an alcoholic. By the end of his life, Sheppard was reportedly prone to drinking "as much as two fifths of liquor a day."[8] He was buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Gardens in Columbus, Ohio.[1] His body remained there until 1997, when he was exhumed for DNA testing as part of the lawsuit brought by his son to clear his name.[9] After the tests, the body was cremated, and the ashes inurned in a mausoleum at Knollwood Cemetery in Mayfield Heights, Ohio, with Marilyn.[1]

Efforts to clear Sheppard's name

Sheppard's son, Samuel Reese Sheppard, has devoted considerable time and effort to clearing his father's reputation.[10] In 1999, he sued the State of Ohio in the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas for his father's wrongful imprisonment. By order of the court, Marilyn Sheppard's body was exhumed, in part to determine if the fetus she was carrying when she was killed had been fathered by Dr. Sheppard. Terry Gilbert, an attorney retained by the Sheppard family, told the media that "the fetus in this case had previously been autopsied," a fact that had never previously been disclosed. This, Gilbert argued, raised questions about the coroner's office in the original case possibly concealing pertinent evidence [5]. Due to the passage of time and the effect of formaldehyde on the fetus's tissues, paternity could not be established.

At trial, Gilbert suggested that Richard Eberling, an occasional handyman and window washer at the Sheppard home, was the most likely suspect in Marilyn's murder, after a ring that had belonged to Marilyn Sheppard was allegedly found in his possession. Eberling died in an Ohio prison in 1998, where he was serving a life sentence for the 1984 murder of an elderly, wealthy Lakewood, Ohio woman named Ethel May Durkin, a widow who died without any immediate family.

Durkin's murder was uncovered when a court appointed review of the woman's estate revealed that Eberling, Durkin's guardian and executor, had failed to execute the deceased's final wishes, which included stipulations on her burial. Durkin's body was exhumed, and additional injuries were discovered in the autopsy that did not match Eberling's previous claims of in-house accidents, including a fall down a staircase in her home. Coincidentally, both of Durkin's sisters Myrtle Fray and Sarah Belle Farrow had died under suspect circumstances as well. Fray was killed after being "savagely" beaten about the head and face and then strangled; Farrow died following a fall down the basement steps in the home she shared with Durkin in 1970, a fall in which she broke both legs and both arms. In subsequent legal action, both Eberling and his partner, Obie Henderson, were found guilty in Durkin's death.

DNA testing of Richard Eberling's blood, to see if there was a match with the blood found at the murder scene, was inconclusive. Prosecutors argued that the blood evidence had been tainted in the years since it was collected, and that it potentially placed 90% of all Americans on the crime scene (blood collected from a closet door in Marilyn Sheppard's room was Type O, while Eberling's blood type was A).

Eberling had admitted having been in the Sheppard home, and stated he cut his finger while washing windows and bled while on the premises. This has been cited as evidence of Eberling's involvement in the murder: "Some people questioned why Eberling would account for his blood being in the house" [2].

Though Eberling denied any criminal involvement in the Sheppard case [11] a fellow convict reported that Eberling confessed to the crime. Kathie Collins Dyal, a home healthcare worker for Durkin, also testified that Eberling had confessed to her in 1983. The credibility of both witnesses was seriously called into question during the 2000 civil trial.

F. Lee Bailey, Sheppard's attorney during his 1966 retrial, insisted in his testimony in the 2000 civil lawsuit that Eberling could not have been the killer. Instead, Bailey suggested that Esther Houk, wife of Bay Village mayor Spencer Houk, had killed Marilyn in a fit of jealous rage after finding out that Marilyn and her husband had had an affair. The Houks were neighbors of the Sheppards.

Cuyahoga County prosecutor William D. Mason led the State of Ohio's trial team, which included assistant prosecutors Steve Dever, Kathleen Martin, and Dean M. Boland. They argued that Sheppard was the most logical suspect, and presented expert testimony suggesting that Marilyn Sheppard's murder was a textbook domestic homicide. They argued that Sheppard had not welcomed the news of his wife's pregnancy, wanted to continue his affairs with Susan Hayes and with other women, was concerned about the social stigma that a divorce might create, and killed Marilyn to get out of his marriage. Prosecutors asked why Sheppard hadn't called out for help, why he had neatly folded his jacket on the daybed in which he said he'd fallen asleep, and why the family dog - which several witnesses had testified (in the first trial in 1954) was very loud when strangers came to the house - had not barked on the night of the murder (recalling the famous Sherlock Holmes remark about "the curious incident of the dog in the night-time," with its implication that the dog knew the criminal).

After ten weeks of trial, 76 witnesses, and hundreds of exhibits, the case went to the eight-person civil jury. The jury deliberated just three hours on April 12, 2000, before returning a unanimous verdict that Sam Reese Sheppard had failed to prove that his father had been wrongfully imprisoned.

On February 22, 2002, the Eighth District Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that the case should not have gone to the jury, as 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. In August 2002, the Supreme Court of Ohio affirmed the appeals court's decision.

The Sheppard case continues to be highly controversial in the greater Cleveland area.

Pop culture references

  • Many believe that the television series The Fugitive and the later motion picture of the same name were loosely based on Sheppard's story, though this has always been denied by their creators.
  • The crime that leads to the imprisonment of the main character in Stephen King's novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption (as well as the subsequent film The Shawshank Redemption) bears many similarities to the Sheppard case.
  • The TV Series Cold Case episode "Schadenfreude" is based on this case.


  • Cooper, Cynthia, Sheppard, Samuel Reese (1995). Mockery of Justice. Northeastern University Press. ISBN 1-55553-241-1. 
  • Neff, James (2001). The Wrong Man. Random House. ISBN 0-679-45719-4. 
  • Mason, William D., DeSario, Jack P. (2003). Dr. Sam Sheppard on Trial: Case Closed. Kent State University Press. ISBN 0-87338-770-8. 
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Sam_Sheppard". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
Your browser is not current. Microsoft Internet Explorer 6.0 does not support some functions on Chemie.DE