Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Trial of the Century

Fifty-three years ago tomorrow, sometime in the early morning of July 4, 1954, in the Cleveland suburb of Bay Village, Marilyn Sheppard was murdered. Her husband, Dr. Samuel H. Sheppard, was charged with the crime, and convicted by a jury. Those are the plain facts, what we know for certain.

This we also know for certain: the Sam Sheppard murder trial was made for today’s media. It was perhaps the most sensational murder trial of the century to that point, with reporters from all over the country (radio, television, newspapers) converging on Cleveland for their frenzied coverage of the trial. (Greta and Nancy must curse that they weren't in the business back then.)

And what a trial it was, a spectacular affair lasting eight weeks and including all the elements today’s news networks would crave – sex, money, prestige. And then there was the added bonus, as the columnist Dorothy Kilgallen put it, that “it [was] equally possible for the rational mind to find him innocent or guilty.”

It happened so long ago, and yet the details seem strangely familiar. If one were to judge by the headlines screaming from the tabloids and being shouted from the cable news networks, we’re currently undergoing an epidemic of such killings. Every month or so we’re flashed the picture of a woman who’s either dead or missing. Invariably, the prime suspect – the only suspect – turns out to be the husband, boyfriend, or lover. As we had known from the start. And invariably, we’re left to wonder why this one thought he could get away with it, when the others couldn’t.

The Sheppard case fits the description to a T. Attractive wife, socially prominent husband, infidelity on his part, a bloody murder. The hubby pleads innocent, telling a intriguing, if implausible, story of a bushy-haired intruder, but we all know he's the one who did it. He’s hauled into court, put on trial, convicted (after five days of deliberation by the jury), sentenced to life in prison. Appeals follow, but they’re all doomed to failure. There’s even the involvement of a famed real-life detective novelist whose investigation claims to exonerate the prisoner (Erle Stanley Gardner, creater of Perry Mason, whose Court of Last Resort worked on Sheppard's behalf). The only thing missing, back in the 50s, was the Lifetime movie.

Perhaps the movie would have left out the final twist, though – the appearance of a soon-to-be world-famous defense attorney, the shocking revelation uncovered by a world-famous journalist (Kilgallen, who years later disclosed that the original trial judge told her, before the start of the trial, of his opinion that Sheppard was "guilty as hell"), a stunning success in appellate court when so many appeals through the years had been denied, a landmark Supreme Court decision followed by a new trial in 1966, and with it a new verdict – not guilty.

It was all there, and there’s no reason to think the Sheppard trial wouldn’t be just as big a sensation today as it was 53 years ago, even as it continues to fascinate us now.

It's always been assumed that the Sheppard case was the inspiration for The Fugitive (substituting Kimball's one-armed man for Sheppard's bushy-haired intruder), but Roy Huggins, the series’ creator, has always insisted the real basis was Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, with its story of the obsessed detective Javert and his endless pursuit of the fugitive Valjean.

The case has been the subject of numerous books and articles throughout the years, including one authored by that lawyer who was made famous by the trial: F. Lee Bailey. Sheppard himself wrote (or had ghostwritten) a book maintaining his innocence, but other books have insisted on his guilt. (It’s even been the focus of an episode of Nova, which certainly proves its importance, because we all know PBS doesn’t waste time on anything that isn’t important.)

And to this day, despite all the effort, we’re still not really sure what happened. The famed Supreme Court decision overturning Sheppard’s conviction made no judgment as to his guilt or innocence – simply ruling that the pretrial publicity, along with the bias of the trial judge, had made it impossible for Sheppard to receive a fair trial. (The case, Sheppard v. Maxwell, which defined the limits to which a free press could go in covering trials, is standard reading today in any Constitutional law class.)

In 1975 it was made into a three-hour TV movie on NBC, Guilty or Innocent: the Sam Sheppard Murder Case, starring George Peppard in an excellent performance as Sheppard, coming complete with a story in TV Guide on the casting of the movie. This was where I first became familiar with the story of Sam Sheppard. Rewatching the movie today, it still holds up: the semi-documentary feel, with black-and-white stills reenacting various aspects of the case, and with actors in the story directly addressing the camera, as if they were telling the viewer their character’s story.

The movie gets the period elements right: the dark paneling of the courtroom in 1954, the large globe lights hanging down from the ceiling, the heavy blinds in the windows, keeping out the musty sunlight. The grey suits, the big cars, the men’s hats, the flowered wallpaper, the blood red lipstick. Think Perry Mason, but darker, without Mason’s light of justice to pierce the darkness of death and uncertainty.

In the twelve years between Sheppard’s trials we see time change; the dark 50s paneling of the courtroom (the same one he was originally tried in according to the movie, although in reality it was across the hall from the original) now replaced by light-colored walls and modern lighting. Sheppard himself becomes grayer, thicker around the waste, even as the cars become longer and more sleek, and the clothes louder and more garish. Put more plainly, Sheppard enters prison two years after Korea; he emerges in the middle of Vietnam. Regardless of the merits of a script and cast, a movie set in a particular time and place is nothing if it doesn’t live within its period.

Sheppard emerges in this story as a sympathetic character, due in large part to the portrayal by George Peppard. (The movie is largely based on Jack Harrison Pollack's book Dr. Sam: An American Tragedy, in which Pollack leaves no doubt that he believes in Sheppard's innocence.) Peppard offers a subtle performance; you're meant to identify with him, but there's something about Peppard-as-Sheppard that leaves you slightly disconcerted, the inscrutible look in his eyes that leaves you asking yourself, "well, maybe. . ." It's painful watching Peppard, an actor I've always liked, show us Sheppard's slow descent into the dissolute lifestyle that ultimately claims his life in 1970.

William Windom co-stars as "Walt Addison," a journalist who serves as a kind of Greek chorus and is probably a composite of Pollack and Chicago Tribune writer Paul Holmes, whose Sheppard Murder Case was one of the first books to declare Sheppard's innocence. Most of the other names have been changed from the real-life characters, with the exception of Walter McGinn's assured performance as the cocky, assured young Lee Bailey. And while the movie is, as I say, sympathetic to Sheppard, leading one in the direction of his innocence, it ultimately allows the viewer to form his own opinion.

So if Sheppard didn't do it, who did? Bailey thought the killer was the jealous wife of a neighbor. (He felt only a woman could have inflicted the brutal injuries to Marilyn Sheppard in that particular manner; a man of Sam Sheppard's strength would have utterly obliterated her skull.) Others pointed to a handyman who had known access to the Sheppard household and was subsequently conviced of similar murders. In the 90s, Sheppard's son brought a civil suit against the state of Ohio for wrongful imprisionment, but lost. Jury deliberations revealed that many still thought Sheppard had done it.

And so we come to today. The jury is, so to speak, still out and probably always will be. Despite theories on both sides, it's likely that - barring some miracle - the court of public opinion will product a hung jury. (We've only touched a bare sliver of all the information about the case - this site provides a wealth of information and links.)

But there are some things we know. People will continue to die, murders will continue to be committed. Spouses and loved ones will always be prime suspects, and the guilty ones will continue to amaze us as to why they thought they could get away with it when nobody else could. And there's one more thing we know.

The media, like the poor, we will always have with us. And as long as this is the case, the circus will always be in town.

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