“I didn’t kill my wife.”
“I don’t care!”
Some of you might recognize those lines from the 1993 film, The Fugitive, starring Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones.
Ford plays Dr. Richard Kimble, a prominent Chicago vascular surgeon accused of murdering his wife. He claims he’s innocent and that the killer was a one-armed man who was in his house when he arrived home.
The evidence against him is compelling, and he’s sent to prison. On the way to the penitentiary, a bus carrying Kimble, two guards, and three other prisoners is involved in an accident with a train. Kimble escapes, goes on the run, and attempts to prove his innocence. U.S. Marshal Samuel Gerard (played by Jones) was sent to capture a fugitive and bring him to justice.
Although the film’s creators deny it, many speculate both the film and earlier television series were based on the following true story.
Dr. Samuel Sheppard, a respected neurosurgeon, married Marilyn Reese in February 1945. They settled near Lake Erie, Ohio. Two years later had their first and only child, a son nicknamed Chip.
Bay View Hospital where Dr. Samuel Sheppard practiced medicine (Public Domain)
On July 3, 1954, Sam and Marilyn hosted a neighborhood party, including dinner, drinks, and a movie. Sheppard fell asleep in the living room. Marilyn walked the neighbors out.
In the early morning hours of July 4, Sheppard heard Marilyn cry out. He ran upstairs where he saw someone in the bedroom before being knocked temporarily unconscious. When he came to, he heard a noise downstairs where he confronted the intruder and chased him from the house.
At 5:40, Sheppard telephoned neighbors. They found him shirtless and wearing pants with a bloodstain on the knee. Authorities arrived a short time later.
Police subsequently arrested Sheppard for the murder. His trial began on October 18, 1954. There was extensive media coverage of both the investigation and trial.
The defense argued that Sheppard also had extensive injuries, including a cervical concussion. His attorney also noted the crime scene was extremely bloody, but Sheppard’s clothing had only a small amount of blood.
The trial lasted nine weeks. On December 21, after four days of deliberation, jurors found Sheppard guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced him to life in prison.
But the story doesn’t end there. Sheppard’s attorney, William Corrigan, spent six years making appeals. All were rejected. Corrigan died on July 30, 1961.
Enter F. Lee Bailey. (Recognize that name from somewhere?)
A federal judge granted Bailey’s appeal for a writ of habeas corpus on July 15, 1964. He called the original trial a “mockery of justice.” The State of Ohio appealed the ruling, and the appeals process eventually went to the United States Supreme Court. On June 6, 1966, the high court, by an 8-1 vote, struck down Sheppard’s murder conviction.
The retrial began in October of that year. Unlike the first trial, the judge sequestered the jury. On November 16, after deliberating twelve hours, members of the jury found Sheppard not guilty. After his release from prison, he later remarried, but died on April 6, 1970, at age forty-six.
Sheppard’s son, Chip, devoted considerable time and effort to clear his father’s reputation. Alan Davis, a lifelong friend and administrator of Samuel Sheppard’s estate, sued the state of Ohio for wrongful imprisonment.
In 1997, Samuel Sheppard’s body was exhumed. DNA testing absolved him of the murder.
So, who killed Marilyn Sheppard? The most likely suspect was Richard Eberling, an occasional handyman and window washer at the Sheppard’s home.
Authorities questioned Eberling about a series of burglaries in the area. He confessed to the crimes. Included in his loot were two rings belonging to Marilyn, but he claimed he stole them in 1958 from the house of Sam Sheppard’s brother. (Of note, police found a canvas bag containing Sam Sheppard’s wristwatch, fraternity ring, and key chain outside the residence at the time of Marilyn’s murder.)
In subsequent questioning, Eberling admitted his blood was at the crime scene but that he had cut his finger while washing windows just prior to the killing. He underwent a polygraph test, and the examiner concluded Eberling did not show deception in his answers. This conclusion was later refuted by other experts as being inclusive or that Eberling had shown indications of deception.
Eberling was associated with several women whose deaths were suspicious. He was convicted of killing elderly widow Ethel May Durkin in 1984 after claiming she died as the result of falling down the staircase of her home.
F. Lee Bailey stated he rejected Eberling as a suspect in 1966 because “I thought he passed a good polygraph test.” When presented with the news an independent polygraph expert said Eberling either murdered Marilyn or had knowledge of who did, Bailey stated that he probably would have presented Eberling as a suspect in Sheppard’s 1966 retrial.
Although he denied killing Marilyn Sheppard, a woman who cared for Ethel Mae Durkin testified that Ebberling confessed to her in 1983. He died in an Ohio prison in 1998.
A 2002 book proposed the theory that James Call, an Air Force deserter, killed Marylin Sheppard while passing through Cleveland on a multi-state crime spree. The book showed comparative photos of Call’s Luger pistol and Sheppard’s blood-stained pillowcase.
It’s likely we’ll never know the true identity of the murderer, but if I were placing a bet, my money would be on Eberling.