With decades passed since Sam Sheppard's death, we may never know what truly happened in the sleepy town of Bay Village, Ohio in the early morning hours of July 4, 1954. What we do know is that, at some point in the night, Sheppard's wife Marilyn, who was four months pregnant at the time of her death, was brutally bludgeoned to death in the Lake Erie home that she shared with her neurosurgeon husband and their young son.
Marilyn Sheppard's slaying and the subsequent trial of Sam Sheppard would become one of the most controversial murder cases in American history.
The Sheppards had been visited by neighbors earlier in the night of July 3, and Sam Sheppard had fallen asleep on a daybed in the living room while watching Strange Holiday. Their guests left shortly after midnight, and no one knows for sure what transpired between then and 5:40 the next morning of July 4, when a frantic Sam Sheppard called his friend Spencer Houk, the mayor of the small Cleveland suburb, saying, "I think they have killed Marilyn."
When Spencer and his wife arrived at the Sheppard home, they found Sam shirtless in the den, his trousers damp with a bloodstain on one knee. According to Sheppard, he had awakened in the night to the sound of his wife shouting his name. He had rushed upstairs to find a figure standing over her. He and the intruder struggled, and Sheppard was knocked unconscious. When he came to, Marilyn Sheppard was dead.
After checking on his seven-year-old son who was still asleep in the next room, Sheppard claimed that he then ran downstairs, where he again encountered the same figure, this time fleeing the house. He pursued the individual out to the shore of Lake Erie, where the two again grappled, and Sheppard was once more rendered unconscious. When he awoke, his T-shirt was gone–and so was the intruder. Sheppard was never able to describe the "bushy-haired" figure very clearly, nor even tell if it was a man or a woman; in at least one case describing the person simply as a "biped". Sheppard attributed his hazy memory to having been twice knocked out. Of course, authorities found his story fishy.
As did the media. Ohio news outlets seized upon the case, with numerous papers casting a harsh and accusatory light upon Sam Sheppard. One front-page article from a July 30 edition of The Cleveland Press shouted, "Why Isn't Sam Sheppard in Jail?".
Sheppard was eventually arrested for the the murder of his wife. The trial began on October 18, 1954, and was among the most reported-upon in American history—rivaling the Lindbergh kidnapping trial. Throughout, the media continued its tactics, fanning the flames of Sheppard's presumed guilt. On December 21, 1954, Sheppard was found guilty of the second-degree murder of his wife. He was sentenced to life imprisonment. A string of family deaths followed in the wake of the trial. On January 7, 1955, Sheppard's mother committed suicide. Then, eleven days later, Sheppard's father died of a bleeding gastric ulcer and stomach cancer. In February of 1963, Sheppard's father-in-law would also commit suicide.
While Sheppard remained in prison, his legal team fought the 1954 ruling. The appeals process advanced to the Supreme Court. On June 6, 1966, it struck down the murder conviction by an 8-to-1 vote. Ultimately, the Supreme Court ruled that the media had created a "carnival atmosphere" of "inherently prejudicial publicity" around the trial, and that the judge had failed to "control disruptive influences in the courtroom." Sam Sheppard, who had been found guilty of his wife's murder in his first trial in 1954, was finally free in 1966.
Following his release, Sheppard appeared as a guest on The Tonight Show, co-wrote a book about his trial and his time in prison, and embarked upon a wrestling career under the name "Killer" Sam Sheppard. During his brief stint as a wrestler, he used his knowledge as a doctor to develop a submission hold called the "mandible claw" which would later be popularized by Mick Foley while wrestling under the name Mankind. Sheppard died in 1970 of what was initially thought to be liver failure but was later found to be Wernicke's encephalopathy.
The debate about whether or not Sam Sheppard killed his wife didn't die with him, however. Three decades after his death, Sam Sheppard's son Sam Reese Sheppard helped to bring a civil suit alleging wrongful imprisonment of his father. DNA evidence that had come to light only a few years earlier played a major role in the trial, during which time the plaintiff's attorney argued that Richard Eberling, a local handyman who had worked as a window washer at the Sheppard house, was responsible for the murder. According to the argument, the DNA–which included blood stains from a third person who was neither Sam Sheppard nor his wife–showed that Sam Sheppard was innocent and indicated that Eberling had killed Marilyn Sheppard in 1954.
At the time, Eberling was serving a life sentence for the murder of Ethel May Durkin in 1984. Over the years, several other women had also died under mysterious circumstances in proximity to Eberling, and in 1959, while Eberling was under suspicion for several robberies which had occurred in the area around Bay Village, police found rings that had belonged to Marilyn Sheppard in his possession.
However, Eberling maintained his innocence in the Sheppard case, claiming that he had stolen the rings several years after the murder, from a box in the house of Sam Sheppard's brother. At the time of the retrial in 1966, Eberling was dismissed as a suspect because he passed a polygraph test, though later experts have called that test's findings into question.
To this day, there are individuals who believe that Sam Sheppard killed his wife, while many others believe just as vehemently that he was wrongfully imprisoned for a crime he didn't commit. While the media circus surrounding the Sheppard trial has since been eclipsed by high-profile murder cases such as the O.J. Simpson trial in 1995, there is still no shortage of mystery surrounding Marilyn Sheppard's end on that fateful July night.
Featured photo of Sam Sheppard with his wife and son courtesy of Open Road Media; Additional photo: Alchetron