3 minute read

Samuel Sheppard Trials: 1954 and 1966

A Second Chance

In November 1961, attorney F. Lee Bailey, then a 29-year-old newcomer, took up Sheppard's cause. He filed a stream of motions on Sheppard's behalf and saw every one rejected. His frustration lasted until March 1964, when, by chance, Bailey attended a literary dinner. Among the other guests was Dorothy Kilgallen, and she happened to repeat Judge Blythin's off-the-record remark to her during the trial. Bailey listened intently. If he could demonstrate judicial prejudice then that would be grounds for a new trial.

Four months later a judge ordered Sheppard freed on bail, citing that the carnival conditions surrounding his trial "fell far below the minimum requirements for due process."

The following year Bailey argued his case before the Supreme Court, claiming that Blythin had displayed prejudice and that the trial had been conducted in a manner unbecoming a legal action. The Court agreed. On June 6, 1965, they handed down their decision that Sheppard's 1954 conviction be set aside, because Judge Blythin "did not fulfill his duty to protect Sheppard from inherently prejudicial publicity which saturated the county."

Ohio tried Sheppard again. Media interest remained high but this time was kept in check when the trial opened October 24, 1966, before Judge Francis J. Talty. Prosecutor John Corrigan led witnesses through essentially the same story that they had told over a decade earlier, but they now faced a defense attorney at the peak of his powers. Bailey demolished them, particularly Coroner Samuel Gerber. Referring to the elusive "surgical instrument," Gerber pompously announced that he had spent the last 12 years looking for just such an item "all over the United States."

"Please tell us what you found?" asked Bailey.

Sadly, Gerber shook his head: "I didn't find one."

Bailey scathingly dismissed the prosecution's case as "ten pounds of hogwash in a five-pound bag."

On December 16, 1966, the jury took less than 12 hours to return a verdict of not guilty: Sam Sheppard's ordeal was over.

But liberty proved brief. Sheppard died in 1970.

In 1995, Sheppard's son, Sam Reese Sheppard, initiated action to sue Ohio for the wrongful imprisonment of his father, claiming that recently uncovered DNA evidence pointed to the real killer being the family's former handyman, Richard Eberling, who was then serving a sentence for murder in Florida. (Before his death in 1998 Eberling denied any involvement in the Sheppard case.)

In December 1998, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that Sam Reese Sheppard could pursue a wrongful imprisonment suit on behalf of his father.

After much delay, testimony got under way on February 14, 2000, before Judge Ronald Suster. Terry Gilbert, attorney for the plaintiff, promised the eight-person jury that "finaly, after 45 and a half years, the truth will be told to you in this courtroom."

Facing potential damage payments running into millions, the state hit back hard, with Cuyahoga County Prosecutor William D. Mason describing Sheppard as a cad whose affairs create a "powder keg" of tension that exploded when he battered his wife to death.

The much touted DNA evidence proved to be ambiguous. Dr. Mohammed Tahir testified that two blood smears found at the scene did not match blood from either Sheppard or the victim, but could have come from Eberling. However, under cross-examination, Tahir conceded that Eberling was just one of "thousands" whose blood might match the badly degraded DNA sample. In most other respects the testimony was largely a rerun of the two previous trials, just as baffling, and just as contradictory.

On April 12, 2000, for the third time this remarkable case went to a jury. After just three hours of deliberation they decided in favor of the state, saying that the original jury had got it right after all—Dr. Sam Sheppard had murdered his wife.

Colin Evans

Suggestions for Further Reading

Bailey, F. Lee with Harvey Aronson. The Defense Never Rests. New York: Stein and Day Publishers, 1971.

Gaute, J.H.H. and Robin Odell. The Murderers' Who's Who. London: W.H. Allen, 1989.

Holmes, Paul. The Sheppard Murder Case. New York: David McKay, 1961.

Pollack, Jack Harrison. Dr. SamAn American Tragedy. Chicago: Regnery, 1972.

Sheppard, Sam. Endure And Conquer. Cleveland: World, 1966.

Sheppard, Stephen with Paul Holmes. My Brother's Keeper. New York: David McKay, 1964.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1954 to 1962Samuel Sheppard Trials: 1954 and 1966 - The Carnival Begins, Morals, Not Murder, A Second Chance, Suggestions For Further Reading