Was it really Dr. Sam Sheppard who killed his wife Marilyn in the early morning hours of July 4, 1954? Now 61 years after her brutal murder and subsequent conviction of Sam, and nearly 50 years since that conviction was overturned by the United State Supreme Court leading to Sam’s acquittal in a second trial, that question is still widely disputed among casual and expert observers.
The question of Sam Sheppard’s innocence was one focus of the Cleveland-Marshall Law Alumni Association’s annual signature continuing legal education event, “Sheppard v. Maxwell: 50 Years Later - Reinvestigating The Sam Sheppard Murder Case,” hosted at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law. Proceeds from the event go towards the Cleveland-Marshall Alumni Scholarship Fund.
The all-day event featured several of the key participants from the third trial in this murder, a civil suit brought about by the Sheppard estate against the State of Ohio. Former Assistant Cuyahoga County Prosecutors A. Steven Dever ’84 and Dean Maynard Boland, along with moderator Judge C. Ellen Connally ’70, began the day by taking the engaged audience back to 1954, a time where television coverage was sparse and the local newspapers were often the public’s only source of news. That distinction would ultimately prove a major part in the ruling of Sheppard v. Maxwell and the legacy of this case in changing the influence of trial publicity and media in the judicial system.
“As the newspapers generated stories, circulation went up. It was the talk of the town,” stated Dever, explaining the media’s sensational focus on this small-town murder.
Dever and Boland continued by providing a detailed timeline through the investigation and first two trials before presenting the key arguments of their ultimately successful representation of the State of Ohio in the civil proceedings. The former prosecutors explained their arguments that the crime scene had been staged to deflect suspicion of domestic violence, including the placement of the body and corresponding pooling of blood, and the manner in which Sam’s doctor’s bag and other items were arranged. “The staging that went on is typical in domestic homicides,” said Boland.
Dever and Boland also offered the explanation of a lamp as the potential murder weapon, a theory unique to the third trial, as well as the success of cross-examining expert witnesses and how they felt science had been misused and misapplied by those experts.
Prominent local attorney Terry Gilbert ’73, lawyer for the Sheppard estate during the third trial, backed the credibility of much of the scientific evidence presented in trial during his presentation. Gilbert explained the close personal connection he felt to the case and Sam (Chip) Sheppard, the surviving son of Marilyn and Sam, and that the reasoning behind filing the civil suit was to have the ability to reexamine the evidence in the case with modern scientific technology. They did not believe that the suit would actually go to court and were unable to meet the difficult burden of proving Dr. Sheppard innocent of commit the murder, rather than the standard of reasonable doubt.
The highlight of the event came in a contentious closing panel, where Judge Ronald Suster, the Cuyahoga County Pleas judge for the civil trial, as well as long time Plain Dealer reporter Brent Larkin ’86 joined Dever, Boland and Gilbert to review pieces of evidence from the third case and answer audience questions. Dever, Boland and Gilbert did not waver in answering questions along the same lines as the 2000 trial and Gilbert again cast the assertion that Richard Eberling is likely the true murderer of Marilyn.
As far as answering the questions still surrounding this case, a reflective remark from Gilbert explained it best. “We’ll probably still be talking about the same matters in this case 25 years from now.”
The Cleveland-Marshall College of Law Library is host to the complete collection of files from the Sam Sheppard office provided by the Cuyahoga County Prosecutors office. Public access to the digitalized files is available at engagedscholarship.csuohio.edu/sheppard.