Monday, January 31, 2000 at 2:37 PM
The third trial of the Marilyn Sheppard murder gets under way today in Cuyahoga county common pleas court. The 45 year old case began with the conviction and subsequent acquittal of Dr. Sam Sheppard. Now his son, Sam Reese Sheppard, wants to clear his father's name with new DNA evidence. This time, it's not the prosecution, but Sam Reese who has the burden of proof in convincing a jury in this civil case that his father was innocent of the brutal murder. What's new in this trial is DNA technology. But this new evidence could be questioned because of its age and possible contamination. 90.3's/INFOHIO's Yolanda Perdomo reports on the events leading up to today's Sheppard trial.
Marilyn Sheppard was bludgeoned to death on July 4, 1954. Her husband, Dr. Sam Sheppard, was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to life in prison, of which he served 10 years. In 1964 he was freed when it was determined he didn't get a fair trial because of enormous pretrial publicity that influenced the jury. Two years later he was retried for his wife's murder, and was found not guilty. But Sheppard never recovered from the experience, turning to drugs and alcohol before dying of liver problems in 1970. The experience also left scars on his son Sam Reese Sheppard, who is fighting today to clear his father's name.
Sam Reese Sheppard- Well, I seek a declaration of innocence in the civil court. That has been our only remedy legally to deal with the case. And through the civil case, quite frankly it's amazing that we've gotten this far. It's a new tactic, we're creating new law. It's a new statute. It's very rare that a private citizen can confront the state and ask the state to be responsible for such mistakes....short of an absolute resolution of my mother's murder, which I think we've done...short of that, we will get a declaration of innocence for my father...
Yolanda Perdomo- DNA evidence taken from blood samples and crime scene remnants are at the center of this case. Sheppard will try to prove that another person was the murderer. He contends that DNA found in a blood spot on a bedroom wall matches that of Richard Eberling. Eberling was a window washer who worked for the Sheppards and was arrested in 1959 on an unrelated charge. Marilyn's ring was found at his house, and Sam Reese Sheppard contends Erberling had eerie knowledge of the crime scene. Eberling died two years ago while serving time for another murder. The suspicions about Richard Eberling didn't go far with Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs-Jones, who was county prosecutor when Sheppard filed his suit. She OK-ed getting a blood sample from Eberling. But she says Eberling wasn't suspect enough for more prosecutions.
Stephanie Tubbs-Jones- I made a determination that there was insufficient evidence before me to take Richard Eberling to the grand jury. That in reality, Richard Eberling was more than 70 years old. He was serving a life sentence. He was going to die in the penitentiary as a result of a prior offense in that it was not a good expense of tax dollars to seek an indictment against him in addition to which ethically, as a prosecutor, I had insufficient evidence to present that case to a grand jury. And ultimately get a conviction.
YP- While DNA evidence is used as a near perfect way to determine whether someone was involved in a crime, in this case, it may not stand up in court. Paul Gianelli, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University says it's going to be hard to prove on several levels.
Paul Gianelli- The evidence we now have because of the DNA evidence. We have somewhat more information. But it has limitations on it because the evidence is old, and you have chain of custody problems. You have degradation of the evidence. And you have problems of contamination.
They're going to have a difficult time with the chain of custody on some of those items because they weren't all kept in the same place.... So it's clear to me that if this case was tried today, if this was a recent case, the DNA would have settled the whole matter. I think this case we would know who did it or have a much better idea.
YP- And Gianelli insists that evidence held by both the prosecutor's office and the Sheppard family's defense team may cancel each other out because of how the evidence was retained and stored for nearly 50 years.
PG- You cannot assert chain of custody because it was your responsibility to maintain the chain of custody. The problem is there are very few statutes or regulations that govern the retention of evidence after a trial. So I'm not sure there is any legal provision that you can find that says they had some sort of responsibility after the 1966 trial.
When you lie once, you'll lie again.
YP- But even with new findings, and the possibility of another person being named as the real killer, it won't change William Lamb's vote on the guilt of Sam Sheppard. Lamb was 29 years old and the youngest juror in the original 1954 murder trial. He says when Sheppard lied about having an affair, it was one of many inconsistencies that played out in the courtroom.
William Lamb- But there were other things naturally that entered into too. But the whole thing was a lie, as far as I'm concerned, now that I can see the whole picture, since I was on the jury. And we listened to many, many witnesses on the witness stand. And we were instructed to watch the reactions of the witnesses also by the judge to see how they would answer questions. Whether they would answer questions very forthrightly, or with disdain, that type of thing. You can tell with some of them, they weren't exactly telling the truth. .
Lamb, along with former prosecutor Stephanie Tubbs-Jones, believes that this new trial is financially motivated since Dr. Sheppard was acquitted of the murder back in 1966. If he is found innocent of the charges this time around....based on the preponderance of the evidence....Sam Reese Sheppard can say his late father was falsely imprisoned. It would clear the way for him to collect up to 2 million dollars from the state.
For INFOHIO, I'm Yolanda Perdomo in Cleveland.