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Published: Sunday, 4/23/2000

It's time for son of Dr. Sam to face the truth

Sam Sheppard was a no-good lying scoundrel of a husband. He got what he had coming to him when he beat the living daylights out of his poor, pregnant bride. That's my opinion, and I'm sticking to it.

Got plenty of company in the Sheppard-did-it club, too.

The latest bunch of jurors assembled to ponder the nearly half-century-old whodunit echoed the chorus of voices past and present in deciding against the murderous osteopath. Just too many inconsistencies in Sam's shaky defense and too much motive in his philandering background to conclude it was anyone but him.

But the open-and-shut Sheppard case didn't end with the defendant's second-degree murder conviction 46 years ago and may never end. The whole sordid affair was eventually revisited with a new trial in 1966 after a federal court ruled the media circus that attended Sam's original one trampled like elephants on justice. An acquittal followed. But the case would again be revisited decades later after the Sheppard estate sued to have all taint of homicidal guilt officially expunged from the Sheppard name, along with compensation made for the toll that wrongful imprisonment took on the man and his family.

The driving force behind the third and hopefully final Sheppard trial was his sole surviving heir, Sam Reese Sheppard. Except for the baldness, the son is a dead ringer for his old man. He is a strange, solitary bird who lives modestly in California when he isn't trekking across the country to protest the death penalty and make continuing pitches for his father's innocence. In more recent years, clearing his father's reputation has become an obsession for the middle-aged crusader, who was a 6-year-old boy sleeping in a nearby room the night his mother was savagely bludgeoned to death.

What else would motivate the haunted son to relive the nightmare of July 4, 1954?

Before the latest effort to clear his father's name, the bodies of both his parents would be exhumed to extract DNA samples and intimate details of their lives would be reintroduced to the world on the witness stand. The blood-soaked death bed of his mother and the rest of the blood-splattered murder scene would be scrutinized by competing court experts. The veracity of his father's statements to police that horrific night would once more be questioned and doubted. The painful memories that had dulled with time would be sharpened to a razor focus to inflict renewed agony.

And to what end? Sam Reese Sheppard, who cut a stoic figure day after day in the Cleveland courtroom, is the biggest loser in the jury's verdict. Where does he go from here? It was a mighty struggle to even obtain another day in court for the Sheppard clan. The troubled son gambled everything on the jury exonerating his father and bringing some closure to a tragedy that cruelly scarred him as a young boy and forever defined him as an adult.

Cynics speculate Sam Reese Sheppard is in it for the money. The Buddhist follower could build a lot of temples with the millions he stood to gain had the jury decided against the state of Ohio in his wrongful imprisonment lawsuit. But the son of Dr. Sam never struck most observers as anything but a sincere soul on a lonely mission to repair his father's reputation.

Even after the jury's decisive refusal to acknowledge Dr. Sam's innocence, his son remained defiant, insisting his cause had been advanced, not defeated. "We have proven Dr. Sam Sheppard did not murder my mother, and that will come out in history, I assure you," he told reporters after failing to convince even one juror of that fact in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court.

What the Sheppard team did was enlighten a whole new generation of people about a murder case that captivated the nation long before the O.J. Simpson sensation. And by pressing the issue to the fore, they inadvertently reinforced the belief of more observers than not that Sam Sheppard did indeed kill his wife.

Still, Sam Reese Sheppard vows to prevail, saying his quest on behalf of his father is not over. But it should be. After an exhaustive review of the original case, after studying new scientific evidence not available in the earlier trials, after all the dirt and drama of the Sheppard murder was dragged before the public again, the surviving victim of that crime, the child who lost both his mother and father, needs to face the truth.

It is not the judicial system that has done him and his family wrong, sighs a sympathetic assistant county prosecutor. Steve Dever hopes Sam Reese Sheppard will one day redirect his anger and bitterness toward the responsible party and recognize ". . . that his father's conduct created this horrible nightmare that he is involved in."

Without that realization, there will be no peace and no end to the trials and tribulations of the tormented son of a murderous father.

Marilou Johanek is a Blade editorial writer.



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