First there was a long running television show called The Fugitive. Then we got a movie. Now we have another television show about the fugitive. For decades now we have been watching stories, fictional stories, which were spawned by a real murder case. The real case involved a medical doctor who was convicted of murdering his wife. His name was Sam Sheppard. He was convicted and carted off to prison. His conviction was appealed and he won a new day in court. The second time around he was found not guilty. The key reason that he lost the first time and that they built fictional stories around his case was because the story he told the police was one that they didn't believe.
Remember, the truth is sometimes stranger than fiction. However, police tend to play the odds. They go upon their own experience. That experience tells them that murders usually have very simple stories and simple explanations. The police look first at those who know the victim because the odds are very good that, when someone is murdered, the murderer is someone who knows the victim. The problem is that they tend to form tunnel vision and only look in the directions they expect will most likely reveal the guilty party. This can result in the innocent being arrested while the guilty go free. It does not take into account the possibilities of a serial murderer being involved or someone doing the murder because they are caught in the act of committing some other crime.
In Cleveland, Ohio, Sam's 31-year-old pregnant wife was found dead during the morning hours of July 4, 1954. She was found dead in their upstairs bed by her husband, a successful 30-year-old neurosurgeon. His story of the crime remained constant over the years. After dinner guests had left, he watched a movie downstairs and had fallen asleep on the couch. He awoke when he heard something and went upstairs and got into a struggle with an intruder and was struck on the head and blacked out. When he regained consciousness he found his wife covered in blood. He checked her pulse to find her dead and then ran to his son's room (Chip, age 7) to find him still asleep and unharmed. He then heard a noise downstairs and ran there and saw a man fleeing. The man was about six foot three inches, middle aged, with dark bushy hair. He caught up with him, they struggled, he was choked and lost consciousness again. This time when he regained consciousness he returned to the house and checked his wife again and then called his neighbor who was the local village mayor who came over right away. The police were called and Sheppard was taken to the hospital for treatment for shock and neck injuries.
Massive media scrutiny followed with headlines labeling Sheppard as the murderer! 26 days after the murder he was arrested and then brought to trial. After six weeks of testimony he was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Eventually the Supreme Court, after 12 years of continuous appeals, overturned the conviction and with a better lawyer this time around (F. Lee Bailey) he was acquitted.
Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark wrote the following in setting aside his first conviction:
"The massive, pervasive and prejudicial publicity attending petitioner's prosecution prevented him from receiving a fair trial consistent with the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment…Despite his awareness of the excessive pretrial publicity, the trial judge failed to take effective measures against the massive publicity which continued throughout the trial or to take adequate steps to control the conduct of the trail."
Sam Sheppard finally received justice. Sacco and Vanzetti and Bruno Hauptmann never did because the publicity factor was never given the weight it deserved in their earlier trials.
What is interesting to note is that we know who was the likely killer in the Sheppard case. Who was it? It was most likely Richard Eberling, a man arrested for stealing from the homes where he worked, a man who was convicted of killing Ethel May Durkin, a man who admitting he washed the Sheppards' windows shortly before the murder and cut his finger and trailed blood into the house (unidentified blood was found at the crime scene), a man associated with a number of women who had met violent deaths.