The hard-boiled wisdom of Charles Bukowski rolls out of Sam Reese Sheppard like a mantra, in a steady cadence that ends with a wry smile.
"A few friends like Bukowski help one along," he says, returning the writer's work to a stack of books on the floor. "Care for a glass of water?"
It's a fitting philosophy, and beverage, for the setting -- an austere one-room apartment in a tattered residential hotel in Oakland, California, home to an austere and troubling figure out of the dark pages of Cleveland history.
Sheppard was seven years old on July 4, 1954, when he awoke to a house full of hysteria that soon held the entire city in its grip. His mother, Marilyn, had been brutally murdered in her bed. His father, a well-known osteopath, sat dazed and moaning in a chair. The Bay Village house was teeming with grim-faced strangers. Young Sam was whisked away by relatives, too traumatized even to cry.
What happened next is the stuff of local legend. In the heat of a media feeding frenzy, Dr. Sam Sheppard was accused and, five months later, convicted of killing his wife. He spent 10 years in prison before the United States Supreme Court overturned his conviction, and was acquitted in a second trial in 1966. But by then he was a broken man and, after an embarrassing turn as a professional wrestler, died in 1970.
It was an ugly business that left a nasty legacy, from the destruction of the Sheppard family to the lynch-mob atmosphere that ultimately led to new legal standards for fair trials. Even after Sheppard's acquittal, many Clevelanders remained convinced of his guilt and are to this day. The excesses and reversals were always palatable as long as the cops got the right guy, and as time passed and murder became commonplace -- even in respectable neighborhoods -- it was easy to forget the carnage wrought by the Sheppard case.
Sam Reese Sheppard tried to forget, too. He grew up and left Cleveland, found a profession and a girlfriend, and if he had a horrific childhood, it was certainly no barrier to leading a normal life. Or so he thought. Then he learned that tragedies of the magnitude that engulfed his family have a life of their own and can reach across decades to inflict pain and open old wounds.
Now this community is learning that same lesson.
Next week, the third trial of Dr. Sam Sheppard will open in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court, under intense media scrutiny and the strangest of circumstances. A criminal matter is being tried as a civil case. The victim has been dead for 46 years, the alleged killer for 30. A new suspect, touted as the real killer, is also dead. Defense lawyers arguing on behalf of Sam Reese Sheppard will be acting as prosecutors, trying to absolve his father by pinning his mother's murder on their new suspect. County prosecutors will be acting as the defense team, re-creating and defending the 1954 conviction of Dr. Sam.
It is a trial that neither side wanted, yet both have made elaborate preparations for. It is a trial that, in and of itself, has no consequence; the verdict will neither free anyone nor send anyone to jail. A ruling favorable to the Sheppard team simply allows them to file a claim for monetary damages in a higher court.
But the emotional and historic implications of the trial could hardly be more profound. Fed by a steady stream of books, movies, and television programs over the past four decades, the Sheppard case has grown to near-mythical proportions, attracting worldwide attention as both an enduring whodunit and cautionary tale of the abuse of power. It is in this light that Sam Reese Sheppard hopes to cast the third trial -- as a demand for accountability from a system that wronged his family and, in his view, continues to perpetrate such wrongs.
The specter of injustice and universal appeal of a son's struggle to redeem his father have captured the media's imagination -- everywhere except Cuyahoga County, where Dr. Sam is still regarded as a pariah and his son as an opportunist. The occasional glimpses of Sam Reese Sheppard that Clevelanders have been afforded the past few years have been wraithlike and ghoulish -- clad entirely in black, slogging through one of his multistate walks or praying over his mother and father's disinterred corpses. Though a masterful publicity campaign has raised fresh doubts about his father's guilt, Sheppard himself is regarded as a pathetic figure, resurrecting old ghosts and trying belatedly to capitalize on his family's misery.
All of which misses the central truth of the trial, which has been clouded by antithetical convictions about truth and justice, and animosities old and new.
"I don't have to clear my father's name," Sheppard insists. "That was done by a court in 1966."
What, then, does Sheppard want? The vindication that a court ruling could never provide. Reparation for years of turmoil and pain. A definitive answer to the question of who murdered his mother. An end to derision, mockery, isolation.
To adversaries and outsiders, his goals may seem self-defeating, even ludicrous. But then, very few of them have ever needed to exorcise the demons that haunt Sam Reese Sheppard.
The lobby of the aging hotel that Sheppard calls home drips with faded grandeur, its stucco walls and red floral carpeting bathed in the dim glow of an ancient chandelier. Behind the smeary plastic of the front office window, an amiable manager named Charles scratches his head and assures Sheppard that he'll figure out why his apartment has no heat.
Shoes come off before one enters Sheppard's fourth-floor redoubt, which he treats with the customs and respect of a practicing Buddhist. But the furnishings and decor are along the lines of a college dorm room -- a desk and bureau, roll-out mat for a bed, stacks of wooden crates stuffed with books and papers, a guitar, and a bicycle. A small stand holds sheet music for Bach, Ellington, and a blues number, "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Chile." Maps are the most prominent items on the walls, including one of the United States, with pins to mark Sheppard's lengthy protest walks.
There is a bathroom off the single room, crammed with clothing and hiking gear. And not much else. The sum total of Sheppard's worldly possessions and ascetic lifestyle is apparent in a single glance.
"I don't have much of a personal life here," Sheppard confesses. "This is a place I come to recuperate. I'm gone every two or three weeks for conferences and speaking engagements. Then I come back to my cocoon to train for my walks and repair my soul."
In both content and form, Sheppard's lifestyle is not far removed from that of a homeless person -- which is no coincidence. Ever since the day his world was shattered 46 years ago, Sheppard has veered back and forth between stability and a restless, nearly destitute existence.
Sam Reese was raised by his father's brother, Stephen Sheppard, and his wife Betty, who worked hard to shield him from the uproar and publicity surrounding his mother's death and provide a comfortable foster home. But no surrogate parents could replace what young Sam had suddenly lost: his mother; his father, who he saw only during brief prison visits for the next 10 years; his grandmother, who committed suicide after her son's conviction; his grandfather, who died of a bleeding ulcer two weeks later; his home, which he never lived in again; even his dog, Kokie. For a child who, just the day before, had been living an idyllic suburban life, it was a devastating blow.
"I never felt like I had a home again," Sheppard says.
After grade school and two years of junior high in Rocky River, Sheppard was sent to a military academy in Indiana. Neither he nor his imprisoned father liked the idea, but his uncle, a strong-willed man, prevailed.
"It actually turned out for the better," Sheppard recalls. "I got an excellent basic education. I learned to play and write music. And it brought me and my dad closer, because we were both answering roll call and marching to breakfast every morning in all-male institutions."
Dr. Sam was freed between his son's junior and senior years, and that summer Sam Reese lived in Cleveland with his father and Ariane Tebbenjohanns, a flamboyant German woman whose correspondence with the famous prisoner had blossomed into a romance and, upon his release, marriage. "She was a really neat lady who taught me how to drive a stick shift and bought me my first guitar," Sheppard says. "But she wanted to be a replacement for my mother, which I rejected."
Sheppard was sent abroad after graduation, on a work/tour sailing cruise that was cut short by the Supreme Court ruling and his father's second trial. After the acquittal, he was befriended by Dr. Sam's new attorney, F. Lee Bailey, who took Sheppard back to Boston and helped get him admitted to Boston University. Bailey also put him to work in his office, planning eventually to add Sam Reese to his staff as a lawyer and investigator.
"But it didn't pan out," Sheppard says, "because a year later I became a hippie and turned in my draft card. Bailey's a big ex-Marine, so that kind of stiffed things."
Sheppard never finished at BU, opting instead to get trained and certified as a dental hygienist. Then he moved to Maine, where he lived for nearly five years with his girlfriend. Their relationship fell apart when she started talking about having children. "I knew I still had emotional problems," Sheppard says, "and until I worked that stuff out, I just couldn't risk raising kids."
His problems were like ocean tides, muted and submerged much of the time, but rising with irresistible ferocity at critical stress points. In 1974, Sheppard marked the 20th anniversary of his mother's murder by having a nervous breakdown and slitting his wrists.
"It wasn't a suicide attempt -- I didn't draw enough blood," he says. "It was a classic symptom of survivor's guilt, a ritual reenactment where you hurt or retraumatize yourself as a means of trying to empower yourself."
Sheppard returned to Boston after the breakup and fell apart, barely hanging on to a job and an illegal living space in a downtown loft. "I was close to the street then, real close," he says. He took up Buddhism, which was not enough to prevent an unexpected flare-up of emotional trauma in the late '80s, with the resurgence of capital punishment.
"It tore me up," Sheppard says. "I would get nervous and nauseous when there was an execution. I even called death row in Florida and tried to talk to a guy before he was put to death."
Sheppard has a visceral connection to prison, where, in brief interludes, he spent his formative years with his father. He writes poetry filled with the language and ethos of convicts. He is a regular visitor to death row and says he grows uncomfortable if too much time passes without ministering to doomed prisoners. He is well-versed in the ways of life behind bars, recounting the indignities he and his father endured, at one point declaring proudly, "I can take a jump frisk real well!"
There's a quiet intensity about Sheppard that suggests a life of confinement, reinforced by his monastic wardrobe and bald pate. A bit taller and heavier than his father, Sheppard is personable yet stiff, as if always slightly on guard. He often hides behind sunglasses. Once the barriers come down, though, he talks about his life with a matter-of-factness that belies the subject matter, the result of years of therapy and meditation.
Already diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder by the time the executions unnerved him, Sheppard plunged into a study of the disorder and decided he needed group therapy. "When Vietnam veterans came back with it, they formed groups to talk about their experiences with people who understood them," he says. "That's when I realized I had to find a victim's group."
In an organization called SOLACE (now Murder Victim Families for Reconciliation), Sheppard found both kindred spirits and a new mission in life -- campaigning for prison reform and against the death penalty, working to change the system that had broken his father. It was an opportunity to finally give meaning to the tragedy that had poisoned his life, to turn all the pain and sickness to some constructive end.
This was the genesis of Sheppard's long protest walks, the first of which he made in 1995, from Boston to New Orleans. Their stated purpose is to protest the death penalty. In truth, they're the perfect blend of protest and therapy, an opportunity to withdraw from the world and walk off his anxieties while making a dramatic social statement.
"I was pretty thrilled when Sam decided to make positive use of the trauma in his life," says his cousin, Carol Leimbach, a family and child counselor. "I think it gave him a lot of strength to be able to say, This is who I am, and this is what my experience has taught me."
But there was a risk in going public, which would inevitably mean returning to his mother's murder. For years, Sheppard had dodged the curious, the nut cases, the tipsters, the scam artists -- literally hundreds of people who wanted a piece of him and the family tragedy. Facing his inner demons meant facing them as well.
"I knew that the moment I stepped foot on any kind of platform around the death penalty issue, it was going to be open season," he says. "Being a public figure destroyed my father. I knew it could destroy me, too."
In fact, it did just the opposite, reenergizing Sheppard and plunging him into an investigation that drew him back to Cleveland. But he had no inkling of the reception that awaited him.
In March 1995, an odd trio filed into the office of Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Stephanie Tubbs Jones. She knew Terry Gilbert, a local defense attorney with a bent for liberal causes. He was accompanied by Andy Carraway, an attorney with AMSEC, a Virginia-based security and investigation firm, and Cynthia Cooper, an attorney, journalist, and former Clevelander who now lives in New York City.
Gilbert handed Jones a fat binder of material compiled by AMSEC that laid out evidence for a new suspect in the Sheppard case -- Richard Eberling, a con artist already serving a life sentence for the murder of another woman. There was enough in it, Gilbert insisted, to warrant reopening the investigation. He even had a list telling Tubbs Jones how to proceed, by gathering blood samples and the like.
It is unusual, though by no means unprecedented, for prosecutors to get new evidence from people interested in a case. But Tubbs Jones saw something else in this assemblage.
"This was the convergence of three people who wanted me to help them fulfill their goals," she says. "There was a woman writing a book. There was a lawyer who said, Ah, this is the case to get. And there was a young man [Sheppard] who had a need or desire to resolve some issues in his life."
That may be a narrow view, but it's not far from the truth.
Just as Sam Reese Sheppard expected, going public had attracted a flood of sympathizers and opportunists. Sheppard has never doubted for one moment of his life that his father was innocent, and the certitude in his voice when he decried Dr. Sam's imprisonment was like a siren song to a new generation of activists and reformers. It attracted Gilbert, who, after hearing Sheppard speak in Cleveland in 1989, offered to represent him. Cooper called from New York, eager to reinvestigate the case, with publishing contacts that could give their efforts wide exposure. AMSEC investigators heard of their work along the way and helped focus and organize it.
The results are detailed in Mockery of Justice, a book co-authored by Cooper and Sheppard that makes a compelling case against Eberling. Piecing together bits of evidence and old police reports, and building on the work of Paul Kirk, the forensic specialist hired by the Sheppard family in 1955 to do an independent investigation of the murder, Cooper and Sheppard deconstruct Dr. Sam's conviction and follow a bloody trail to Eberling, a thief and handyman who was a regular visitor to the Sheppard home.
But even with the impetus provided by the book, their work eventually ground to a halt. The Sheppard team could make a good circumstantial case against Eberling, but to lock it up -- perhaps even elicit a confession -- they needed the force of law. The idea in going to the prosecutor's office was to enlist supporters who could open the door to more evidence and authorize depositions and interrogations.
"Our intention was to forge an alliance with the prosecutor's office," Gilbert says. "We wanted to combine our resources and theirs to see if we could break this case."
That's not how Tubbs Jones saw it. "They thought that I was going to walk down a primrose path with them," she says. "I was not. I told them that very clearly, right at the outset."
Part of the problem then -- and much of the problem since -- is that what makes for entertaining reading does not necessarily constitute a solid legal case. An old blood sample found in a box may nail a suspect on the printed page, but a skillful lawyer can make short work of it in court. Tubbs Jones was willing to help Gilbert get a blood sample from Richard Eberling. But after she and her staff studied the AMSEC report, they decided it did not justify reopening the case.
"Weighing all the facts, it was not compelling," insists Tubbs Jones, who also saw no point in prosecuting Eberling for Marilyn Sheppard's murder. "At this juncture, he's 75 years old and serving a life sentence, so he's going to die in prison. The cost to Cuyahoga County for such litigation would be astronomical. And Dr. Sheppard already got what he was entitled to -- he was acquitted. So in my opinion, justice would not be served by revisiting this case."
From Gilbert's side, it looked like the same institutional bias that had characterized the Sheppard case from the start -- particularly after he was able to enlist Tubbs Jones's first assistant, longtime prosecutor Carmen Marino, as an ally. After reading the report, Marino made a trip to Columbus to question Eberling and became publicly supportive of the Sheppard team. Sources close to the prosecutor's office say that Marino, who declined to be interviewed for this story, reacted before thoroughly researching the original case.
But the public split in the prosecutor's office reinforced the perception that the Cuyahoga County justice system was once again screwing the Sheppard family. And it helped set the stage for an ugly turn of events.
In October 1995, Gilbert filed a lawsuit asking for a declaration of innocence for Dr. Sam Sheppard and monetary damages for his wrongful imprisonment. Even then, he claims, he had no desire for a trial.
"The lawsuit was filed as an attempt to get more evidence, rather than a means to get money," he says. "The case was going nowhere, and we decided the only way to get momentum was from the courts."
The suit succeeded in shaking loose previously undisclosed evidence from the coroner's office, including a Bay Village police report noting the 1955 discovery of a battered flashlight buried in Lake Erie not far from the Sheppard property -- exactly the kind of murder weapon an intruder might use, then hide. But the suit also changed the Sheppard team's relationship with the prosecutor's office, which could hardly be expected to cooperate with someone suing it.
For a while, Gilbert was able to do an end run around staff prosecutors and coax agreements directly out of Marino. Tubbs Jones finally tired of his maneuvering and, in April 1997, dropped the gate, limiting communications with him to official paperwork and proceedings. By then, however, Gilbert had found another source of momentum -- the media.
The Sheppard team had attracted some media attention when Mockery of Justice was released in October 1995. But it was a puddle compared to the tidal wave that hit in February 1997, when they announced the results of DNA tests done on blood samples from the Sheppard home, Dr. Sam's pants, and Marilyn's autopsy. The new evidence seemed to verify the presence of another person in the house that night -- the real killer -- and generated front-page headlines across the country.
A second round of DNA tests, unveiled in March 1998, was even more explosive. This time Eberling's blood had been matched with samples from the crime scene, prompting Gilbert to hold a press conference literally doors away from Tubbs Jones's office, demanding that she reopen the investigation. All four major television networks were there, as were CNN and a film crew from the PBS series Nova.
Which came as no surprise to Tubbs Jones. "Terry is a master at working the media," she says. "Every time an issue came up, I would get calls from Japan, London, Europe -- all over. It was incredible." It was also time to stop being a punching bag, she decided. As soon as Gilbert was finished, she called a press conference of her own and declared, "Terry Gilbert, shame on you!"
"What I meant," she says now, "was that he knows the law. And if he were Eberling's attorney, he wouldn't be saying there was enough evidence for me to open the case. So shame on him for saying to the world that there was. You want me to be fair, you be fair."
The DNA evidence had a number of problems. For one thing, it did not identify Eberling specifically, but rather a set of genetic markers that only a small percentage of the population (including Eberling) has. Moreover, the samples were old, quite possibly contaminated, and did not have the chain of custody required for such evidence. (Even with fresh samples and an airtight chain of custody, the DNA evidence in the O.J. Simpson case was demolished by his lawyers.)
Gilbert not only believed that he had compelling evidence, but thought he was absolutely justified in using the media to pressure Tubbs Jones. "The media basically destroyed Dr. Sheppard," he says. "So here we were, finally turning the corner in Cuyahoga County, putting the media to positive use in a case that had been so infected by it. I didn't think there was anything wrong with that."
Morally, perhaps not. But strategically, it polarized the case, driving the two sides apart and hardening their opposition. The media were now involved as a significant third party. The integrity of the Cuyahoga County justice system was under attack. A vicious murder was common talk over dinner.
It was beginning to feel very much like 1954.
The past has never looked so harmless as it does in the cozy Boston Heights home of Doris O'Donnell, a former Cleveland News and Plain Dealer reporter. The front door opens into a sitting room with red tartan carpeting and a huge loom and spinning wheel, like a spread out of Country Living. Large Newfoundland dogs jump at the patio doors, barking for their supper.
O'Donnell is a short woman with gray-white hair and remarkable faculties for the age of 78. An intellectual bulldog, she has an encyclopedic memory and the no- nonsense manner and language of a career journalist bred in the old-school style.
O'Donnell covered the 1954 Sheppard trial for The News and is arguably the best living source on the original case. She is by no means unbiased, however. Convinced of Dr. Sam's guilt by the same arguments that persuaded the original jury, she has been adamant about it ever since and still gives occasional speeches defending the verdict and media coverage. As for the current effort by the Sheppard team, she dismisses it as a bald attempt to "rip off the state of Ohio."
Whatever one thinks of her beliefs, O'Donnell offers a vivid portrait of the mindset in Cleveland during the first Sheppard trial, particularly that of police and reporters. The accuracy of many of her assertions has been lost in the slipstream of time. But there's no question that they reflect the thinking of that era.
And it's not a pretty picture.
"This was not the happy golden couple that everybody seems to think lived in that house," she says. Dr. Sam was a bad-tempered womanizer in the portrait she paints, an arrogant scion of a self-promoting medical family with a checkered past. Marilyn was a girl scout in saddle shoes and bobby socks, who coached church league basketball and desperately wanted out of an unhappy marriage.
Cleveland had three highly competitive daily newspapers then, and the Sheppards were known at all three. Sam and his brothers, Richard and Stephen, would call the papers regularly, trying to generate publicity for Bay View Hospital, the small osteopathic clinic they ran in Bay Village. Osteopaths were regarded with some mistrust then, but the Sheppards carried an even heavier burden. Years earlier, their grandfather had run an East Side clinic that was rumored to be an abortion mill. One Cleveland detective, in the course of investigating the torso murders of the '30s, claimed to have dug up fetuses in the backyard.
So Dr. Sam Sheppard was hardly an unknown or neutral figure the day police filled his home and listened skeptically to his story about a bushy-haired intruder. And he was like raw meat to reporters, who sprang into action en masse.
"All the reporters were assigned to this case," recalls O'Donnell, who spent time tracking rumors of Dr. Sam's philandering. "That was common knowledge all over the West Side. You could start at the bar at the Westlake Hotel and go all the way out to Rocky River, and that was all you heard, about Sam's girlfriends."
Still, O'Donnell believes Marilyn Sheppard's murder might never have been more than "just another two-bit Saturday homicide" were it not for the barriers -- or perceived barriers -- that went up around Dr. Sam. "The hostility began when this protective shield was put around Sam Sheppard by Bill Corrigan, his defense lawyer, and Steve Sheppard, his brother," she says. "They absolutely refused to let detectives interview him."
The historical record suggests otherwise. Dr. Sam was questioned briefly at the crime scene before being taken to Bay View Hospital, where he was questioned by Dr. Sam Gerber, the county coroner, and two Cleveland detectives. When the detectives accused him of murder, Stephen Sheppard threw them out. Stephen continued to insist that Dr. Sam was in no condition to be interrogated (though he did allow other visitors), but after his release, Dr. Sam was questioned by the sheriff and, on July 9, by Cleveland police. On July 22, Gerber held a public inquest in a school gymnasium, a three-day kangaroo court played out before a packed house of children and housewives. When defense attorney Corrigan objected to the proceedings, Gerber had him escorted out.
But the drumbeat in the papers was to bring Dr. Sam downtown. Louis Seltzer, the revered, all-powerful editor of The Cleveland Press, wrote front-page editorials with screaming headlines like "Quit Stalling and Bring Him In!" In Bay Village, Dr. Sam was tight with the mayor and the police, and seemed to be not only protected, but afforded privileged status. And that, as much as anything, is what struck a volatile chord in blue-collar Cleveland.
"If this had been some black guy picked up at 55th and Cedar, his ass would have been in the slammer that night," O'Donnell says. "Just because somebody was a doctor and lived in Bay Village, why should he be running around free? I mean, this was a dual standard of justice."
Nearly a half-century later, the players have changed, but that populist sentiment has not. "Sam Reese Sheppard is not entitled to any more than anyone else," declares Tubbs Jones. "There are a lot of cases out there where people have been damaged as much as him. To choose his case over and above others is not what I was put in office to do."
Dr. Sam was arrested on August 17 and put on trial in December. He did not handle himself well in the courtroom, according to O'Donnell, who remembers him as either bored or smirkingly arrogant. On the stand, he responded to questions with "I don't know" or "I can't remember" more than 150 times. "He just wasn't credible," O'Donnell says.
It became an article of faith among reporters covering the trial that Dr. Sam was guilty. Gossip that he was a drug abuser gave rise to a mocking ditty, started by writers from out-of-town papers and passed along in the courthouse hallways:
The Demerol man
Whacked his wife
And away he ran.
This attitude left a strong impression in local newsrooms, even years later. When Brent Larkin, the current editorial page editor for The Plain Dealer, started working at The Press in 1970 -- four years after Dr. Sam's acquittal -- there was still no doubt about his guilt.
"If you worked at The Press, this became a little bit ingrained in you," Larkin says. "The people I looked up to were of one mind on this."
With O'Donnell as an adviser, Larkin has continued to carry the torch of Louis Seltzer, using his column to revive the spirit and findings of the first trial and excoriate theories about Eberling. He has been scrupulous about keeping his own opinion separate from the official position of the paper -- though it's telling that, in the past five years, The PD has run only two editorials on the subject. But he has been vitriolic in his column, denouncing Dr. Sam as a "despicable human being" and a man who "butchered his wife."
"I read huge portions of the transcript from the '54 trial and became as convinced as [the Press reporters] were that Sam had done it," Larkin says. "I have to acknowledge that there were excesses in the coverage of the first trial. But that doesn't necessarily mean he's innocent."
Larkin has been in a duel of sorts with PD columnist Joe Dirck, who first met Sam Reese when he did a story on him in 1989 and has since become an unabashed supporter and friend. In his own way, Dirck has been just as much of a scold, chastising the prosecutor ("Shame on you, Stephanie Tubbs Jones") and everyone else who refuses to believe Dr. Sam was wrongfully convicted ("Some of them deserve to have their noses rubbed in it").
"It's amazing to me that Sam Reese Sheppard has not been treated more sympathetically in this town," says Dirck, who, like many people, was moved by Sheppard's personal history and idealism. "I knew a million guys like Sam back in '68 -- principled, committed to social justice, not materialistic. He just never changed."
For a while, Dirck lobbied for better and broader coverage of the revived case. But his editors were indifferent, and eventually he settled into flying solo from his slot on B-1. The PD will be forced into expanded coverage once the trial starts, but up to now it's given the Sheppard story short shrift.
Whether that is due to bad judgment or institutional bias is debatable. Either way, it's hard to ignore the overtones of '54, particularly in the newsroom. As Dirck notes, "Those old Press guys get touchy whenever you question St. Louie."
The Third Trial
Two weeks after he succeeded Stephanie Tubbs Jones in January 1999, County Prosecutor Bill Mason had all the old files from the Sheppard trials brought up to his office and stacked along a wall. Up to then, he had no more than a passing familiarity with the case. But like everyone else in Cuyahoga County, he had heard about the new developments and was intrigued. "I started wondering if the state had made a mistake back in 1954," he says.
A review of the files changed Mason's mind.
"When I look at all the evidence, including the new stuff the Sheppard team brought in, Sam Sheppard is still the most likely killer of Marilyn," he says.
Only three suspects have ever received serious consideration in the case: Dr. Sam; Bay Village Mayor Ralph Houk, a friend of the Sheppards, whom F. Lee Bailey tried to blame in the second trial; and Eberling. Mason describes the evidence against them this way: "If I were to stack all the evidence in piles, the stack against Houk would barely get off the table. The Eberling stack has things they've been able to pull together and make look bigger than they are, but it's still a real small pile. The stack that says Sam is the most likely killer hits the ceiling."
Tubbs Jones had tried to short-circuit Gilbert's lawsuit by appealing it to the Ohio Supreme Court, arguing that the statute of limitations and other time-sensitive constraints expired decades ago. The court ruled against her just weeks before she left for Congress, sending the case back to Common Pleas Judge Ronald Suster and Mason, who was appointed to replace Tubbs Jones by county Democrats.
Faced with the certainty of a trial, Mason rolled out the heavy artillery. He yanked Marino off the case and took it over himself, assigning the footwork to three assistant prosecutors. With behind-the-scenes help from a private detective, O'Donnell, and Tom Perrino, a retired Cleveland detective who worked the first case, they have scoured literally the entire country for old witnesses and evidence.
And they have been tailing Sam Reese. When he was in Cleveland last fall for a speech at Marshall law school, Sheppard was startled to see an assistant prosecutor in the audience, accompanied by a man with a video camera. Sheppard asked the prosecutor to stand up and identify himself, and school officials told the cameraman to stop. Why the subterfuge?
"That was for the sole purpose of being able to cross-examine Sam when he's on trial later, denying some of the things he's been saying in public forums that aren't based on fact," Mason says.
"They've been out there saying whatever they want, and nobody has been holding them accountable."
The lengths to which Mason is willing to go to make his case were dramatically demonstrated last October, when he exhumed the body of Marilyn Sheppard. "We needed a clean, positive DNA profile," Mason says. "Also, one of the theories used at the second trial was that she bit the hand of her attacker, so our experts needed to examine her teeth and facial injuries. And with the high-powered x-ray technology we have today, I was hoping we might find a fragment from the murder weapon in her skull."
Reasonable enough -- if it's not your mother. Sam Reese had already dug up his father, in September 1997, after critics complained that the first round of DNA tests were worthless without a sample from Dr. Sam. Sheppard was able to turn that exhumation, which cost him nearly $8,000, to a positive end. His father died near Columbus, and he was able to bring Dr. Sam's remains to Cleveland to be interred with his mother. But it was a grueling experience. He prepared for it by reading books about death and pinning a gruesome photo to his apartment wall of the skeletal remains of a mountain climber discovered on Mt. Everest.
"I knew that's what I was going to see," Sheppard says.
His mother's exhumation was another matter, an unnerving stratagem that interrupted a Washington, D.C.-Cleveland walk Sheppard was making to mark the opening of the trial (originally scheduled for October 18). Her casket was corroded on the bottom and nearly fell apart on the way to the morgue. When it was opened, a longtime family secret was revealed -- a tiny fetus, the remains of Marilyn's unborn male child, which was removed during her autopsy.
"My mother was so small," Sheppard says sadly. "It looked like there was nothing there at first."
The examination was still under way when Mason held an afternoon press conference, announcing that Marilyn did not bite her assailant, and that the severity of her facial wounds suggested a crime of passion.
"That was obscene," Sheppard says bitterly. "It was a sacrilege, as far as I'm concerned."
When the Sheppard entourage arrived that morning, however, it was with a PR spokeswoman in tow and a press kit promising two press conferences that day. According to Mason, an earlier agreement to do a single press conference with him, Gilbert, and County Coroner Elizabeth Balraj fell apart when Gilbert changed his mind. And there was no way Mason was going to let Gilbert run the media show, as he had done so skillfully against Tubbs Jones.
"I'll give them that the media [were] unfavorable to the Sheppards in 1954," he says. "But they've won the PR war for the last 40 years and, in particular, the past 5. Now we're discovering things that would change the opinion of people, and they don't want anybody to hear about it. We're not going to lie down and just let them rewrite history."
Controlling the media coverage is important to Mason for another reason. He faces election this year, and the case is a golden opportunity to shine -- on Court TV, which is broadcasting the trial; in the record books, where history will remember him as the prosecutor who either fumbled or nailed the Sheppard case once and for all; and in the hearts and minds of Cuyahoga County voters.
"I have absolutely nothing at stake," is all Mason will say when asked about the political impact of the trial. But another high-level courthouse official seems more on point when he says, "In terms of publicity, this is the chance of a lifetime."
The chance of a lifetime seems to have slipped away for Sam Reese Sheppard, who, up until the time Richard Eberling died, in July 1998, thought he had a realistic chance of solving his mother's murder. Now the best he can hope for is to win a battle of circumstantial evidence and, if he's lucky, enough money to pay his lawyer and investigators. Given the odds against that and the enormous personal toll of digging up his parents and a painful past, Sheppard's perseverance has been astonishing -- to everyone except the few people who know his dark places.
"It's very important for Sam, on so many levels, to make this pursuit a search for the truth," says George White, a close personal friend Sheppard met through Murder Victim Families. "I've heard people tell Sam he ought to get a life. Well, this is the essence of his life. Among those of us involved in murder cases where the perpetrator has not been found, there's a struggle with incompleteness, a void, a desire for resolution."
And Sheppard is searching for more than a person. He wants accountability from an entire system, from a court or a judge or a prosecutor who will acknowledge the damage done to his family and take responsibility for it.
"What he really wants is for the community to recognize that his family was wrongly dishonored by them," says his cousin Carol. "Because clearly, having the U.S. Supreme Court overturn his father's conviction and a subsequent trial that found him not guilty were both meaningless. Why is it so important for Cleveland to make this man wrong?"
Ascribe it to whatever you like -- blue-collar backlash, collective denial, institutional prejudice, or plain and simple guilt -- Dr. Sam Sheppard is going on trial again, in a courtroom battle that promises to be as tawdry as the first two trials. More than 100 witnesses are expected to testify before eight jurors in a marathon that may stretch to two months. Some of them will be experts, offering conflicting opinions over what the forensic evidence proves.
But many will be character witnesses, raising the infidelities and other smears that colored the first two trials. Susan Hayes (now Susan Benitez), the infamous "other woman" who testified to an affair with Dr. Sam in the first trial, is on the witness list. So is Jessie Dill (now Jessie Seymour), a casual friend of Marilyn's who reportedly helped her find a divorce lawyer. Even F. Lee Bailey, who catapulted to national fame by winning Dr. Sam's acquittal in the second trial, is scheduled to testify.
One of the more dramatic moments in the first trial came when the prosecution wheeled in a sheet-covered cart and, during testimony from the coroner's office, uncovered it to reveal a paraffin model of Marilyn's battered head. Mason's office found that model and plans to use it again.
All of which is far removed from what the Sheppard team originally sought -- a consideration of new evidence and the investigation of a promising new suspect. It was probably unrealistic to think they could limit such an emotionally charged case to their own terms. But even the principals doubt that reenacting the murder trial will accomplish much.
"Ultimately, this trial is not going to resolve anything," says Gilbert. "Whoever believed Sheppard is guilty is still going to believe that. And the people who are supporters of Sam are going to be just as convinced he's innocent. It's not going to change anything."
"The system was already spanked as a result of what happened in the first trial," says Tubbs Jones. "The law has changed significantly since then. Whatever happens in this trial is not going to change the day-to-day administration of justice in Cuyahoga County."
As for Sam Reese Sheppard, he may be an idealist, but he is realistic about the odds he faces.
"The best outcome would be that they admit my father was innocent and wrongfully incarcerated, and learn from it, so we don't make those mistakes again," he says. And the worst outcome?
"People ask me if I'm confident," he says with a bitter laugh. "I say, yeah, as confident as my dad was when he walked into the system and got chewed up. The prison saying is, hope for the best and prepare for the worst. And that's what I'm doing."
This much is guaranteed: A sensational trial. Huge media coverage. Broken lives and dreams. And afterward, endless, endless debate.
Just like 1954.