The murder trial of Sam Sheppard: Did he kill his wife? A mystery that remains a half-century later

sheppard
Source: Cleveland State University

Jun. 9 2021, Published 4:11 p.m. ET

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On July 4, 1954, Marilyn Sheppard, the pregnant wife of doctor Sam Sheppard, was found murdered in their Ohio bedroom from a savage attack in the middle of the night. 

But, who did it?

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A half-century after the crime, that remains a mystery. One jury said it was Sheppard. Another said he was innocent. The case is marred with confusion and intense media coverage of the case didn’t help. The coverage even led to a verdict being tossed. 

What remains is the mystery of who killed Marilyn Sheppard.

THE MURDER

Marilyn Sheppard was bludgeoned to death while in her bed of the family’s Bay Village home. The savage attack was evident in the police photos taken during the investigation. A pool of blood on the floor, blood splatter on the wall showed the violent nature.

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dead
Source: Cleveland State University

Marilyn Sheppard dead in the bed

While Sheppard was present at the time of the murder, he denied any involvement, claiming he found his wife after being knocked out by an unknown assailant. Sheppard described the attacker to police only as “bushy-haired,” according to History.com.

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After being knocked unconscious, Sheppard said he awoke to see the attack on a nearby beach. He chased and got into a scuffle with the assistant. Again, Sheppard was knocked out cold.

The couple’s son managed to sleep through the entire ordeal.

Around sunrise, Sheppard called a neighbor and them to come over. Police were not far behind.

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sheppard
Source: Cleveland State University

Sam Sheppard at the hospital

The media hopped on Sheppard’s case immediately, providing heavy coverage on the proceedings. The media coverage almost immediately convicted Sheppard from the onset. Frontpage editorials called for his arrest and questioned the case. Outlets printed the scandalous details of infidelity and claims with no support.

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Police eventually arrested Sheppard and prosecutors claimed an affair was the motive for the killing. The defense maintained that the doctor’s defensive wounds proved there was an assailant in the couple’s home that night.

A MEDIA CIRCUS

The trial was a media spectacle. The jury visited the murder site and had spectators and media surrounded the home. Jurors admitted to hearing news reports, but the judge let the trial continue.

On Dec. 21, 1954, a jury found Sheppard guilty of second-degree murder, and a judge sentenced him to life in prison.

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While in prison, Sheppard hired a new defense attorney, F. Lee Bailey, to help him get a new trial. Bailey — a high-powered defense attorney who would later be known for representing Patty Hearst and O.J. Simpson — immediately began the narrative of outside influences impacting the verdict.

beach
Source: Cleveland State University

The beach outside the Sheppard's home

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The media, a biased judge and the issue of police refusing to investigate anyone other than Sheppard meant the trial had not been fair, Bailey contended.

In 1964, U.S. District Judge Carl Andrew Weinman called the trial “a mockery of justice” and threw out the doctor’s conviction on constitutional grounds. The state appealed that decision and the appeals court sided with prosecutors.

The appeals over the case eventually reached the Supreme Court, and in an 8-1 decision, the panel ruled the case should be tried again. The justice noted the first trial had a carnival-like atmosphere thanks to the coverage. Immediately, prosecutors said they would try Sheppard for a second time.

After spending a decade in prison, the doctor was back in court over Marilyn’s murder

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This trial went much more in his favor, and on Nov. 16, 1966, a jury found Sheppard not guilty of murdering his wife.

During the retrial, Sheppard divorced his second wife, Ariana Tebbenjohanns. Now, he was a free man acquitted of the murder and was free to live his life. In 1969, he married his third and final wife, Colleen Strickland. But, alcohol abuse became a problem for the doctor.

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marilyn
Source: Cleveland State University

Marilyn Sheppard

That same year he also became a professional wrestler — wrestling under the name “Killer.” He also resumed his medical practice, though that was short-lived.

On April 6, 1970, Sheppard died at the age of 46 from liver failure.

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Sheppard’s son continued to fight for his father’s innocence. The second trial didn’t eliminate his negative reputation. In 2000, Sheppard’s son attempted to sue the government for his father’s wrongful imprisonment but was not successful, according to History.com.

To this day, police have not arrested anyone for the murder of Marilyn, deeming her case as unsolved.

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The details — from the crime to the media coverage — seemed like something only a writer could dream. In fact, the Sheppard story might have been fodder for both the TV and movie “The Fugitive."

That story is about a doctor wrongfully convicted of murdering his wife.

But, Marilyn’s Sheppard’s death was not fiction. The mystery, though, of who killed her remains today.

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