Tuesday, February 15, 2000

Sheppard trial under way


'Fugitive' case likely to hinge on DNA evidence unknown in 1954

BY JOHN AFFLECK
The Associated Press

        CLEVELAND — Attorneys trying to prove Dr. Sam Sheppard was innocent of killing his wife in 1954 portrayed him Monday as a man caught in a rush to judgment who will be exonerated by DNA evidence and witnesses three decades after his death.

        But prosecutors said Dr. Sheppard probably beat his wife to death because he was an unfaithful husband enraged at being trapped in his marriage.

        “We don't know what lit the match, but something caused the powder keg of marital conflict to blow early on the morning of July 4,” 1954, Cuyahoga County Prosecutor William Mason told jurors in an opening statement.

        Sam Reese Sheppard is suing the state, claiming his father was wrongfully imprisoned for killing his mother at the family home on Lake Erie.

        In a case that partly inspired The Fugitive TV series and film, the doctor initially was convicted of murder and spent a decade in prison.

        But the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the verdict because of the effects of pretrial publicity on jurors and witnesses.

        Dr. Sheppard was acquitted at a retrial in 1966 and died four years later. Dr. Sheppard's attorney at the second trial, F. Lee Bailey, testified Monday afternoon.

        The doctor always insisted a bushy-haired intruder killed his wife.

        During his 80-minute opening statement, Sheppard attorney Terry Gilbert showed jurors a list of five reasons why Dr. Sheppard was innocent.

        At the top of the list was DNA evidence, “a powerful new tool” that through recently discovered blood samples will show a third person — not the doctor and not Mrs. Sheppard — bled in the bedroom where she was killed.

        “We are here to prove once and for all that Dr. Sheppard was innocent of the murder of his wife,” Mr. Gilbert said.

        He also said he will try to show that Richard Eberling, a former window washer for the Sheppards who confessed to a couple of people, is the most likely suspect. But Mr. Gilbert also stressed his main duty is just to show that the majority of evidence indicates Dr. Sheppard was innocent.

        Although the American criminal trial system is the “foundation of our democratic life,” it doesn't always work, Mr. Gilbert said.

        “Sometimes things go very, very wrong and lives are ruined. When the state makes a mistake, it should be held accountable,” he said.

        For the younger Mr. Sheppard to win the case, six members of the eight-member jury must decide that the majority of evidence indicates the doctor was innocent. Mr. Sheppard then could claim damages in a separate court action.

        Mr. Mason and Assistant County Prosecutor Steve Dever, who are leading the state's defense team, spent nearly two hours explaining to the jury why Dr. Sheppard probably was guilty.

        They said the Sheppards' marriage was badly strained by the doctor's repeated and widely known extramarital affairs.

        The weekend of her murder, Mrs. Sheppard was angry with her husband because a house guest had been speaking openly about one of the doctor's lovers, they said.

        The prosecutors argued the nature of Mrs. Sheppard's death — she was hit 27 times on the head and face with a blunt object — indicate the actions of someone in a rage, not a sexual assailant or a burglar.

        Mr. Dever said Mr. Eberling was set up as the “fall guy” in the early 1990s by Cynthia Cooper, who co-wrote a book about the case with Sam Reese Sheppard.

        Mr. Eberling died in 1998 in prison, where he was serving a life sentence for another murder.

        Mr. Bailey's cross-examination is expected to continue today.

       



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