Dr. Sam Shepard--revisited

There was a program on PBS recently about this case.

Presumably it was to show that the reevaluated evidence made a stronger case.

But which way?

Did it say that the reevaluated evidence indicated that he probably did or did not?

The new evidence proved that he did not commit the murders. Dr. Shepard’s body was exhumed, and they ran DNA tests that they couldn’t do back then. Through these tests they were also able to locate the source of some unidentified blood at the murder scene, and IIRC, they also got a confession from that guy. It’s been a little while since I’ve heard anything, though, so I don’t remember the details.


The DNA tests showed that some blood found at the scene belonged to neither Shephard nor his wife. A recent suspect was a small-time burglar who had been questioned during the original case, but let go because they could not link him with evidence and his pattern of burglaries did not match the severe beating that Mrs. Shephard sustained.

During the 1980s, the small-time crook was imprisoned for murder in a case where he and an accomplice conned their way into a woman’s home, then lived with her while robbing her blind. He was imprisoned after she died, because he had a part in her death. (I don’t remember whether he or his accomplice beat her, or whether they simply prevented her from getting timely medical attention for other problems until she died.)

With at least one homicide on that guy’s record (along with some conflicting stories he told fellow prison inmates), the son of Dr. Shephard would like to see the case retried to exonerate his father so that he can sue the state for wrongful imprisonment for his father. The small-time crook died of cancer in prison. I don’t remember that they got a DNA match between him and the (44-year old) bloodstains.

The County Prosecutor has not been really excited about the expense of opening up a 44-year old case (in which every one of the principals has already died).

If the son is successful in reopening the case (and it looks like he might be), he will probably wish he hadn’t. Evidence at the time of the murder indicated that both his father and mother were having extra-marital affairs. Sam Shephard’s story of the events of that night has so many holes, that a significant number of reporters, police, and former prosecutors are convinced that he was a conspirator, even if he didn’t wield the hammer himself. If the prosecutor is forced to retry Sam Shephard in absentia, you can be pretty sure that the thrust of the trial will be to prove that Dr. Sam was involved.


Wow. Thanks Tom! I knew I was missing some stuff. Now I’m going to have to spend the evening surfing for more details. I read a book about this case a long time ago, and now my interest is piqued again.

Thanks for an interesting post, tomndebb.
I remember they made a television movie about the Sam Shepherd case when I was a junior in high school – this would have been late 1975 or early 1976. Brian Keith did an excellent job of playing the good (?) doctor.
The movie ended with Shepherd dying, and his very last words (according to the movie) were: “I know who killed her.”
I have no idea if those really were his last words, but if they were, then your post throws some very interesting light on the subject.
This sticks with me because a pretty girl and I spent much of next day’s English class having a good-natured argument about the movie – she thought he was guilty and I thought he was innocent.

Hmmm, interesting. I remember my parents talking about the case years after; it was sort of a muted OJ trial of the midwest at the time. And of course it inspired “The Fugitive” TV series, too.

Isn’t there some doubt that even advanced forensics could really resolve the matter, though? I seem to recall reading that some of the blood samples, etc. have been lost or were compromised. (Not really to suprising, given the time passed.) But after all this time, and none of the primary players alive, I doubt that even reopening the case would lead to a decisive answer. But I’ll have to read up on it more.
Does anyone else know about if the crime scene samples themselves are an issue?

I just thought of a question for the lawyers who post on SDMB: Did not the Shepherd case lead to one landmark ruling? I want to say, IIRC, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling about jurors being sequestered from intense publicity, or else the decision concerned some other facet of the trial.

Armed, dangerous…
and off my medication.

I don’t know the exact ruling or whether it was used to establish any precedents, but his second trial was directly the result of the Supreme Court declaring that he had no chance for a fair trial in the environment created by the news media.

The publisher of the Cleveland Press (no longer in business) was a family friend of Marilyn Shepard’s family. He started running front page editorials, using the paper’s headline as the editorial banner, calling for the quick arrest, conviction, and punishment of the doc. The other papers (Plain Dealer and some other that has since folded) went along for the ride, neither of them calling for cooler heads to prevail. The TV and radio stations chimed in with their bid for audience, as well.

One of the things that irks those who believe in Sam’s guilt is that they feel a more careful prosecution without the media hype would have gotten a more secure conviction.


The PBS page on the episode:

Eventually they’ll put up the entire transcript too. Ain’t public TV grand?

Thanks a lot for the post, ravenous. That was quite interesting – and one of the low points for the American media.