Tuesday, August 03, 1999

Sheppard trial will get a jury

Son wants to see name cleared

The Associated Press

        CLEVELAND — A jury, and not a judge, will decide whether Dr. Sam Sheppard was innocent of killing his wife in the 1954 murder that helped inspire the movie and TV series The Fugitive.

        Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Ron Suster, who would have decided the case, granted the state's request Monday for a jury trial in a wrongful imprisonment lawsuit was brought by Dr. Sheppard's son, Sam Reese Sheppard.

        The ruling is a victory for the state, which wants more than one person to analyze the massive amounts of material that have been collected in the 45-year-old case.

        The decision also sets up another link with two previous criminal trials of the late doctor. They both were decided by juries. This also is not the first time a jury has been a point of contention in the Sheppard case.

        The younger Sheppard is suing the state, claiming that his father should not have spent 10 years behind bars for the death of Marilyn Sheppard on July 4, 1954.

        Mrs. Sheppard, who was pregnant with her second child, was viciously beaten in her bedroom at the couple's home on the shore of Lake Erie.

        Her husband was convicted of murder later that year but always insisted a bushy-haired intruder killed his wife while he was napping downstairs, then knocked him unconscious when he awoke to his wife's screams and ran to her aid.

        The U.S. Supreme Court later overturned the verdict, ruling that the original trial judge didn't do enough to protect the jury from hearing the many media reports and comments about the case, most of them negative toward Dr. Sheppard.

        Dr. Sheppard was acquitted at a retrial in 1966 where reporters' access to the courtroom was strictly controlled. He died in 1970 of liver failure.

        His son, now 51, has been trying for years to clear his father's name once and for all. He and his legal team have found DNA samples and other evidence implicating the family's for mer window-washer, Richard Eberling, in Mrs. Sheppard's slaying. Mr. Eberling died in prison last year, where he was serving time for another murder.

        For Mr. Sheppard to win the lawsuit, his father will have to be declared innocent of Mrs. Sheppard's murder. That's a stronger legal standard than the reasonable doubt needed to clear someone in a criminal case. Mr. Sheppard could collect an estimated $2 million if he succeeds.

        Judge Suster did not explain his decision on Monday but said he would issue a written decision within a week.

        Assistant County Prosecutor Steve Dever said he was pleased with the ruling.

        “A group of people as opposed to a single individual can better analyze and evaluate the evidence,” he said. “We are comfortable the truth can be determined as best as it can under the history of this particular case.”

        Sheppard attorney Terry Gilbert had argued that the state law regarding wrongful imprisonment cases calls for a judge, not a jury, to decide them. But Mr. Gilbert said he was ready to bring his evidence to the jury. Judge Suster will preside.

        “It's not going to change the character of the case too much,” Mr. Gilbert said.

        The trial is scheduled to begin Oct. 18. The jury will be comprised of eight people, six of whom must agree for a verdict to be reached.

        The Sheppard case has probably been the most publicized murder in Cleveland history but both attorneys said they expected to be able to seat a fair jury in the city.

        “It's no different than any other high-profile case,” Mr. Gilbert said. “People know about it, they hear about it, they read about it, they may have even formed opinions. That's what the jury selection process is all about.”


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