Dr Sheppard

The Mystery of Dr. Sam Sheppard

Doctor Sam Sheppard of Cleveland, Ohio, was convicted of killing his pregnant wife, Marilyn Sheppard, in 1954. Before long, however, his conviction was overturned by the US Supreme Court. He was tired again, but this time he was acquitted. Then David Janssen played (a fictional version of) him on television, and later Harrison Ford did the same. That’s pretty cool and all, but it doesn’t really answer the question of who really killed Marilyn Sheppard…

July 3-4, 1954

On the evening of Saturday, July 3, 1954, Dr. Shepard and his wife spent the evening with their neighbors where they had a nice dinner and watched the Claude Rains movie Strange Holiday on the television. At some point during the movie, Sam fell asleep on the living room daybed, and once the film was over, Marilyn saw the neighbors out. By morning, Marilyn would be bludgeoned to death. The questions are: Who did it?  And, Why?

According to the police, Dr. Sam Sheppard was the obvious suspect and there was a bit of circumstantial evidence that just seemed weird. For example, there were a few items missing from the house, which included Dr. Sheppard’s wrist watch, fraternity ring, as well as his keys, however these were quickly found wrapped in a canvas bag that was hidden in some shrubbery behind the house. Police also figured there wasn’t a sign of a break in since the family’s dog didn’t bark at any time in the middle of the night, and Sam and Marilyn’s son Chip was asleep in his room all night and said nothing had woken him up in the middle of the night.

A little before six o’clock in the morning, Dr. Sheppard summoned their neighbors. When they got there, they discovered Sam covered topless, and there was some blood on his pants around his knees. When the police arrived, they deduced Dr. Sheppard was in shock and mildly disoriented. 

According to Sam Sheppard, he had woken up in the middle of the night after hearing noises coming from somewhere upstairs. He rushed into his and his wife’s bedroom where he saw a “white biped form” attacking his wife before being knocked unconscious himself. When he recovered, he saw the figure again downstairs. He said he chased the figure to the nearby beach where the two would fight, and again Dr. Sheppard was knocked unconscious. 

The Trial(s) of Dr. Sam Sheppard

 Dr. Sam Sheppard was tried twice (at the same time) for the murder of his wife. First, there was the trial in the courts. Then there was a trial by The Press. And, there things had gotten downright vicious. The public’s appetite for all things Dr. Sheppard was so insatiable, the local and national media were there to publish any and all stories, no matter how sensational, and facts be damned. 

Perhaps the worst offender was the Cleveland Press, which later on a Federal Judge would admonish them saying they were playing Judge, Jury, and Executioner of Dr. Sam Sheppard. This was in part because of things like a front page editorial with a massive headline reading “Why Isn’t Sam Sheppard In Jail” on July 30. The following day, the same editorial was published again, although with a new headline “Quit Stalling And Bring Him In”. 

It is also worth noting that the police and prosecutors often acted immediately following press coverage. For example, hours after the “Quit Stalling” headline was published, Cleveland police arrested Dr. Sheppard for “police interrogation”. Another incident involved a popular radio show broadcast from New York where a woman claimed to have been having an affair with Dr. Shepard, and had given birth to his illegitimate child. This was, she believed, the motive why Dr. Sheppard killed his wife. It’s also important to note that this occurred in the trial and that several members on the jury admitted to hearing this broadcast, but the judge did nothing about this. The prosecution also relied on testimony from Susan Hayes, a 24 year old employed at the same Hospital as Dr. Sheppard, who claimed to have had an affair with him, which again was offered as a motive to the murder.

Dr. Shepard and his legal team put on the defense that whoever it was that Dr. Sheppard saw and was attacked by was responsible for the murder. To support this, they relied heavily on testimony from Dr. Charles Elkins, a neurosurgeon who examined the doctor after the murder and found he had a severe cervical concussion and nerve injuries that would be impossible to be self-inflicted or faked and which were consistent with Dr. Sheppard’s story of being attacked and knocked unconscious twice.

They also suggested that due to the amount of blood splayed about the Sheppard bedroom, if he were the killer he would have had a lot more blood on him, way more than the two patches of blood on the knees of his trousers. 

During the attack, a few of Marilyn Sheppard’s teeth had been knocked out. According to the prosecutors, this occurred when Dr. Sheppard attacked his wife. The defense, however, said this was proof of Dr. Sheppard’s innocence. A doctor testified that the missing teeth were caused when Marilyn tried to bite her assailant (Dr. Sheppard had no bite wounds on him) and that if they were caused by a beating, then bits of teeth and bone would have been found inside Marilyn’s mouth and throat.

Dr. Sheppard had, during police questioning and at the trial itself, offered a consistent (even if a bit odd) description of the person he had seen, and the defense also called several witnesses who claimed to have seen someone matching that description around the neighborhood on the day of the attack.

On December 21, 1954, Dr. Sam Sheppard was convicted of murder and sentenced to a life behind bars.

In the Court of the Press and the Court of Public Opinion (which was mainly fuelled by the press) Dr. Sheppard was guilty (even before the trial). However, in the legal courts … well, let’s just say there were issues.

And when the Supreme Court of The United States rules that the trial was unfair, calling it a “mockery of justice” while noting how many constitutional violations had occurred – that’s not exactly a good thing.

In 1966, Doctor Sheppard was retried for killing his wife, but this time the jury was sequestered. The prosecution put on the same case, calling on the same evidence and expert testimony. The defense was also largely the same, however this time the prosecution witnesses were cross-examined with further clarity. Then, after four days of deliberations, the jury found Dr. Sam Sheppard not guilty of the murder of his wife.

This verdict, however, did not seem to have an effect on public opinion. Those who thought he was innocent seemed vindicated in their beliefs. However, those who believed he was guilty considered the new verdict a travesty, with many saying that the verdict did not mean Dr. Sheppard was innocent, but rather that the prosecution just couldn’t prove their case.

Even today, the questions still seem to linger. Did Dr. Sam Sheppard kill his wife and unborn child? Or, if he didn’t, who did?

Dr. Sheppard Post Acquittal

After being acquitted, Dr. Shepard discovered that he had become quite famous. He was still the talk of the town (although much of this was still that whole “Is he guilty or innocent” thing) and he was even a guest on The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson. And then he turned his notoriety to a completely new field: The world of professional wrestling…

…where he was known professionally as “Killer Sam Sheppard”. Because of his fame, he was an instant “big draw”. But, he had another thing going for him, too: he was, actually, a doctor. You know, the kind of person with advanced anatomical knowledge. The kind of man who can create a new submission hold he’ll call the “Mandibular Nerve Pinch” (but others will call it the “Mandible Claw”).

Dr. Sheppard did have one issue, though, that became a major problem after his acquittal: alcoholism. And, ultimately, it would bring about his demise.

Once he was acquitted of all charges, he did return to the hospital as a surgeon, however he made a few small, but deadly mistakes. During one surgery, he nicked an artery and the patient died the following day as a result. In another case several weeks later, the same happened. Both families filed suits against the hospital, which led to his (probably forced) resignation.

On April 6, 1970, would be found dead in his home (now in Columbus). The cause of death was determined to be Wernicke encephalopathy – a type of brain damage associated with prolonged alcohol abuse).

Chip Sheppard

To Dr. Sheppard’s son, Chip (legally Samuel Reese Sheppard) his father was innocent and there was no way he had murdered his mother. After his father’s death, Chip made it his life’s mission to set the record (and the detractors) straight. His plan – he sued The State of Ohio for the wrongful arrest and conviction of his father.

Being that this was a civil case (as opposed to a criminal one) nearly every aspect of this trial was different – from procedure to the rules of evidence. For eight days, Chip and his lawyers made a very solid case that the police had not done their jobs. They were able to present a lot of evidence that directly contradicted the evidence that was presented at the trial, they were able to prove that several other people should have been considered suspects but were overlooked by the police. And, they were able to present forensic evidence that was not scientifically available at the original trial. And, they were able to produce evidence that the prosecution had manage to conceal several important pieces of evidence from the defense that could have, under certain circumstances, changed the outcome of the first trial.

For example, there was blood evidence that was never given to the defense (nor was it used at trial). There was blood from at least three different people collected from the Sheppard bedroom, highly suggesting that there were three people (as the defense claimed) in the room, not two (as the prosecution claimed). DNA profiling, which was not a thing at the original trials, were able to prove the existence of a third person, not Marilyn nor Samuel, who was in the bedroom at the time of the attack.

If the main goal of the civil trial was to prove that Dr. Sam Sheppard was innocent, they certainly made a convincing case that left little doubt. Unfortunately for them, the nature of their case was an improper arrest and prosecution, and after a mere three hours of deliberation the jury concluded that the original arrest was neither mailicious nor improper.

Chip lost his case. However, he did get quite a bit of exculpatory evidence for his father’s innocence on the (somewhat) official record.

And Yet The Jury Is Still Out… (kind of)

There are still those who believe that Dr. Sam Sheppard killed his wife. However, and thanks in no small part to the actions of his son, Chip, there are also quite a few people who believe he did not. There were, after all, several other people the police should have considered as suspects, that never faced any degree of scrutiny.

And one of the big questions still remains: If Dr. Sheppard didn’t kill his wife … then who did?

Leave a Reply

Scroll to Top