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The Enduring Fascination of the Sam Sheppard Case

Sheppard wearing a neck brace due to injuries he said he received after confronting the intruder who murdered his wife
Sheppard wearing a neck brace due to injuries he said he received after confronting the intruder who murdered his wife

SOUND (of Sheppard): Testing…are we recording?

Speaking into a tape recorder in 1966 while reflecting on his life, Sam Sheppard was feeling a bit sheepish about his notoriety.

SAM SHEPPARD: If I was somebody else, I’d be sick of the name “Sam Sheppard”.

As he sat in front of the microphone, Sheppard recalled the events of the previous decade: the murder of his wife, Marilyn; the subsequent criminal trial that fingered him as the culprit and sent him to prison; the US Supreme Court judgment that overturned his conviction, citing prejudicial, pre-trial publicity; and the second trial that made him a free man.

SAM SHEPPARD: There was no proof of my guilt, there is no proof of my guilt, there never will be, because I’m not guilty.

Sitting behind the controls of the tape recorder, writer Bill Levy listened to Sam Sheppard tell his story for 40 hours. He had covered the original trial as a reporter and now he was gathering information for the memoir that he would ghostwrite for Sheppard. Today, Levy says he felt a bit conflicted working on that book.

BILL LEVY: I never thought… There was never any question in my mind whether he did it.

Their book, “Endure and Conquer”, quickly became a best seller. The public just couldn’t get enough of Marilyn Sheppard’s unsolved murder --- a mystery further enhanced by her husband’s well-publicized dalliances with other women.

BILL LEVY: Sex. Beautiful people. Murder. Lies. Everything that you needed; you couldn’t make this stuff up.

DCB: The Sheppard story has been told in several non-fiction books over the years. It was also said to be the basis for the popular 1960’s TV drama “The Fugitive”, about a Midwest doctor accused of murdering his wife. The lead actor was the soulful-eyed David Jansen, playing a man on the run from the police and in pursuit of the real killer.

SOUND Clip from The Fugitive: My picture’s in every police station in the country. I found my wife beaten to death. I was convicted.

In 1993, an equally popular film version of the story was released, starring Harrison Ford as the wrongly-convicted doctor. The creators of “The Fugitive” always denied any connection between their story and the Sheppard case, but Cleveland State University law professor Patricia Falk doesn’t buy it.

PATRICIA FALK: It’s hard to believe that the case didn’t in one way or another influence the story. It has leaked into our public culture. I remember watching that series growing up and being fascinated. Is he ever going to find the person who did it? Isn’t that we all want? And unfortunately, in real life we don’t always get that.

Adam Ross’ 2010 mystery novel, “Mr. Peanut”, also tells the story of a man charged with murdering his spouse. The detective investigating the case is a fictionalized version of Sam Sheppard, who takes up a new line of work, after leaving prison. Ross sees the Sheppard story as a metaphor for the dual-edged nature of marriage.

ADAM ROSS: Anyone who loves their spouse, and has enjoyed a long-term, successful marriage, wants to be their spouse’s hero --- like David Jansen or Harrison Ford. At the same time, anyone who’s been married a long time can imagine themselves --- if not being the murderer of their spouse, can certainly imagine wanting to be free of them.

Marilyn Sheppard’s death on July 4th 1954 turned out to be the first of many tragedies to beset the Sheppard family. In the aftermath of the murder, Sam’s mother died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, and his father died of cancer. After spending ten years in prison, Sheppard tried returning to medicine, only to lose his license after a botched surgery. Deprived of his livelihood, writer Bill Levy says Sam Sheppard parlayed his physical strength into a new career, in 1969

BILL LEVY: Sam became a professional wrestler and wrestled under the name of “Killer Sam” and eventually died of an overdose of pills and vodka.

A bizarre coda to a tragic story that continues to fascinate the public.

David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.