Son carries on fight for The Fugitive

The film shows how a doctor wrongly jailed for the murder of his wife is heroically vindicated. Real life was not so neat, writes John Carlin
Click to follow
The Independent Online
WHEN Sam Reese Sheppard's mother was murdered on Independence Day in 1954 he lost not one family member, but three.

An only child, his mother was four months pregnant with the little brother who might have been. His father, an eminent physician in Cleveland, Ohio, was found guilty of the murder and sentenced to life. He was acquitted 10 years later, after the intervention of the US Supreme Court, but never recovered from the blow. He died, from what his son describes as a broken heart, four years after his release from jail.

The story might have made a powerful film but it lacked the satisfying ending, the sense of order restored to a mad universe, that a box office hit requires. Instead Hollywood made a loose adaptation, casting Harrison Ford as the wronged doctor. The Fugitive brought the tale to a pleasingly neat conclusion, with the doctor heroically vindicated and the real murderer caught.

Sam Reese Sheppard is battling, nearly 44 years after the fact, to derive similar satisfaction from the appalling muddle of real life. The "not guilty" verdict his father, Dr Sam Sheppard, received at the end of his second trial is not enough. He wants his father exonerated and, preferably, the identity of the man who beat his mother to death in her bedroom to be finally established by law.

"'Not guilty' can be interpreted to mean that you just had smart lawyers on your side," he said in an interview last week. "I want a declaration of innocence in a civil court which finally gives my dad the seal of approval for posterity, and for our descendants. This case is world-renowned. It has reached the cultural heights of The Fugitive, and a TV series before that, seen around the world. I want to clear the family name, to honour my father and my mother."

Mr Reese Sheppard (Reese is his mother's maiden name) is a soft-spoken, 50-year-old dental hygienist who now lives in Oakland, California. He is no all-action hero. He packs neither a gun nor a heavy punch. His weapon of choice, as from last year, is DNA, samples of which he has obtained from the scene of the crime, from his father's recently exhumed body and from the man he believes killed his mother.

Richard Eberling, 68, is serving a life sentence for the murder of a woman in Ohio 12 years ago. Back in July 1954 Eberling was the Sheppard family's handyman. Two rounds of tests on blood from the crime scene consistently found DNA with genetic components that Eberling shares with six per cent of the population. Two rounds of tests on vaginal swabs taken from the victim, Marilyn Sheppard, also revealed traces of Eberling's DNA. Dr Sheppard's DNA was not found in the blood taken from the crime scene, but it was, mingled with Eberling's type, in the vaginal swabs.

To the harrowing images Mr Reese Sheppard must carry through life of his mother being bludgeoned to death 35 times with a heavy metal object, he now adds the certain feeling that she was raped. "We know that it was a sexual act but that was never investigated or talked about because that does not fit with the modus operandi of a domestic killing."

Mr Reese Sheppard is convinced the Cleveland authorities never sought seriously to establish the truth of what happened in his home just before dawn on 4 July 1954. Public opinion, stirred up by the press and vote-hungry local politicians, was in a lynch-mob frenzy. When it emerged that the object of their rage had recently had an affair - a shocking thing in those chaste days for a medical doctor to do - the public detected a clear cause and effect logic behind the murder and bawled for his sinful head.

Much later, when the Supreme Court overturned the verdict, the assembled judges did something they have never done before or since. They questioned the freedom of the press, arguing that the news media had abused it.

Mr Reese Sheppard, who said he began his investigations with an open mind, has no doubt whatsoever that Eberling is his mother's killer. The person that counts legally, however, does not see things quite so clearly. The prosecutor charged with the case, Stephanie Tubbs Jones, has refused to reopen it. Witnesses have died, evidence has disappeared, some - but not all - of the relevant blood samples have been contaminated.

Mr Reese Sheppard does not trust the prosecutor's legal arguments. He believes history is repeating itself, and that truth has once again become a hostage to political fortune. Ms Tubbs Jones is running for Congress in November. In Mr Reese Sheppard's opinion - an opinion she indignantly rejects - she does not wish to risk offending powerful sectors of the Cleveland establishment, not least the local press who still abide by what he describes as the stubborn prejudices of their 1954 forebears.

"American law degenerates once it gets a high profile and the court of public opinion becomes involved," Mr Reese Sheppard said. "The truth is all I've wanted these many years. But the truth falls by the wayside. It becomes a matter of winning and losing, of reputations and politics."

His widowed father remained a victim of the system until he died. "We were full of hope when the Supreme Court ruled, the trial happened and he got his medical licence back. But it turned out that people were wary of him performing surgery on them. Then he got sued and, because of his reputation, he had not been able to get insurance. He died a broken man. What finished him off were some liver complications that arose from the malnutrition he endured in prison. At the end he was also abusing some substances. It's a tragedy. It's Shakespeare."

Haunted by childhood terrors of his father dying on the electric chair, "five months after my mother was taken away from me", he is a vigorous campaigner against the death penalty today, speaking out against its random brutality all over the country.

But his life's cause is the exoneration of his father, and he will not rest in the pursuit. "I have no choice but to continue. It is my own flesh and blood. My own father and mother - who truly loved each other, who were never violent with each other, who were friends - have been desecrated."