Monday, June 29, 2015

Ohio Murder Case Inspired Hit TV Show (July 4, 1954)

This week (June 29-July 5) in crime history – U.S. Supreme Court struck down the death penalty (June 29, 1972); Night of the Long Knives (June 30, 1934); Old West gunfighter Clay Allison was killed (July 1, 1887); NBA star Kobe Bryant was accused of sexual misconduct (July 1, 2003); President James A. Garfield was shot (July 2, 1881); Martha Ann Johnson was arrested for killing her four children (July 3, 1989); Marilyn Sheppard was murdered (July 4, 1954); Black Sox trial began (July 5, 1921); Old West outlaw Bill Doolin escaped from jail (July 5, 1896)

Highlighted Crime Story of the Week -

On July 4, 1954, Marilyn Sheppard was beaten to death inside her suburban home in Cleveland, Ohio. Her husband, Dr. Sam Sheppard, claimed to have fallen asleep in the family’s living room and awakened to find a man with bushy hair fleeing the scene. The authorities, who uncovered the fact that Dr. Sheppard had been having an affair, did not believe his story and charged him with killing his pregnant wife.

Creating a national sensation, the media invaded the courtroom and printed daily stories premised on Sheppard’s guilt. The jurors, who were not sequestered, found Sheppard guilty. Arguing that the circumstances of the trial had unfairly influenced the jury, Sheppard appealed to the Supreme Court and got his conviction overturned in 1966. Yet, despite the fact that Sheppard had no previous criminal record, many still believed that he was responsible for his wife’s murder.

The Sheppard case brought to light the issue of bias within the court system. Jurors are now carefully screened to ensure that they have not already come to a predetermined conclusion about a case in which they are about to hear. In especially high-profile cases, jurors can be sequestered so that they are not exposed to outside media sources. However, most judges simply order jurors not to watch news reports about the case, and rely on them to honor the order.

Sheppard’s case provided the loose inspiration for the hit television show The Fugitive, in which the lead character, Richard Kimble, is falsely accused of killing his wife, escapes from prison, and pursues the one-armed man he claimed to have seen fleeing the murder scene.

In 1998, DNA tests on physical evidence found at Sheppard’s house revealed that there had indeed been another man at the murder scene. Sheppard’s son, who had pursued the case long after his father’s death in order to vindicate his reputation, sued the state for wrongful imprisonment in 2000, but lost.

Check back every Monday for a new installment of “This Week in Crime History.”

Michael Thomas Barry is a columnist for and is the author of six nonfiction books that includes the award winning Murder and Mayhem 52 Crimes that Shocked Early California, 1849-1949. Visit Michael’s website for more information. His book can be purchased from Amazon through the following link:

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