Friday, March 31, 2000 at 9:47 AM
A one-on-one interview.
At 52, Sam Reese Sheppard is trying to hold a system accountable for what he says is the wrongful imprisonment of his father, Dr. Sam Sheppard. The Sheppard murder, for almost 50 years, has been the subject of three trials, a Supreme Court decision, several books, documentaries, a 1960's television series, and a movie based on the events surrounding Marilyn Sheppard's death. Sam Reese Sheppard was seven years old and asleep when his mother Marilyn was bludgeoned to death in her room nearby. Even though Dr. Sheppard was later acquitted of the crime in 1966, Sam Reese says no one has been held accountable for his mother's murder. The events of his killing, his father's imprisonment, and early death, and suicides on both sides of the family have left an indelible effect on Sam Reese, and his life's work.
Over the last 10 years, he's been on a quest, gathering evidence and information surrounding his mother's death. In 1995, Sam Reese Sheppard filed a suit against the state of Ohio for the wrongful imprisonment of his father. It was listed as a civil action a year later. He now lives in Oakland California, working as a dental hygienist. Sheppard also spends much of his time as an activist crusading against the death penalty. 90.3's Yolanda Perdomo has been covering the Sheppard trial for 90.3 WCPN; and sat down with Sam Reese Sheppard for a one-on-one interview, where he talked about reliving the experience of his mother's death. And discussions of a settlement which were brought up during this trial.
Yolanda Perdomo- You're seeing things discussed over and over in terms of how the murder was done, what was used, and I just wanted to maybe get your feelings on watching these images - and hearing these words over and over again.
Sam Reese Sheppard- Well, it's very difficult emotionally. These photographs I had not seen until, oh, maybe in my early 20's. And certainly I didn't look at them. They're very gruesome. They're very ugly. It's very difficult to face some of them. In fact, my dad broke down in open court during the unfair trial, practically hysterical with some of this stuff. So it's very tough, but there is some distance there. They're gone. They aren't in that kind of pain, certainly, anymore. So it's a matter of dealing with it. On some kind of meditational basis, shall we say, or something. And a respectful basis. I really thank my lawyer, Terry Gilbert, for taking the images and passing them around to the jury by hand, as opposed to putting them up on the screen at one point. I hope that side will have that kind of respect. I doubt that they will. That's part of the problem.
That's part, from my point of view, (of) the outgrowth of this case that I'm trying to point out. That, that kind of abuse in the media should not happen. For example, I've told the local stations here (in TV) that if they project those images in their local news broadcasts, I will not give them interviews. So as far as I know, those images are staying within the courtroom where they should stay. And not being turned into sensational objects to project hatred and revenge in the community, and thereby project out into other expressions like the death penalty and that sort of thing. So these things should be contained in the right place. And it is difficult. But I am a victim family member and we have to go through this stuff.
YP- How would you describe the media coverage thus far? It's very different from what happened back in 1954. How would you characterize things that you've read, heard and seen as this new trial has come along?
SRS- Well, it's the third trial, so to speak, although there is some question as to whether the first event was even a trial to begin with. Our system does not even have a name for a failed trial in our system, and that's what we're trying to point out with this exercise also. We need to revise the legal system. The American people know that a mockery of justice happened. Not only the Sheppard family, but other families when trials fail, and our system, legal system fails, and we have wrongful convictions. So we're trying to identify that.
It's very different. In fact one of the psychiatrists who showed up as a witness said well, notice that the media coverage isn't so feverish and fevered because nobody's life is on the line here. The drama level is much (lower). This is, I believe, a landmark case on a different level, historically. But to convey all of that is certainly less dramatic than trying to put somebody, take somebody's life, that sort of thing. So it's been interesting to see the interest in the case initially. And then it kind of dropped off. And then also, I think, in the sense of some participants myself, have been very careful not to sensationalize this business, not to make it more dramatic and that sort of thing. So some of the drama has kind of fallen off. I think we're at a good stage with it. A rational stage that now I can talk to you for example, at this point, and talk to a few people in the media in a more reasonable level and not have this fevered pitch. But we're at a lull right now. They're fighting this every inch of the way. And because of that we have these stalls - places to breathe if we use them that way. But it is pretty frustrating on a certain level. But it does notch back the drama of this case.
YP- You use the word sensational. You've also said that this is an unsolved murder. With all the elements that are present with a woman who was killed brutally, her husband is suspected, later convicted, later acquitted of the murder. It has all these facets that do bring in a certain amount of interest and intrigue.
SRS- Of course. This is one of the best selling cases of all time, if you look at the generation of publicity and income that generates. I believe we've solved the case. My motivation for the past 10 years is to solve my mother's murder.....I resent that we've been backed into the corner in this case because this civil action has been, the purpose was, to discover evidence that was hidden from us by the state. It was in order to solve my mother's murder. And I believe we've done that.
What happened in this case was the state of Ohio appealed, and an out of order appeal prevented this from going to trial a couple of years ago. Bumped it up to the Supreme Court of Ohio, and it took them a year and a half to decide that we had standing in court. During that time, our suspect died in prison. And our suspect died in prison one day, one day, before our forensic people were in there to talk to him. Now...what kind of coincidence is that? I don't know. It's just unreal....when our suspect died, the criminal resolution of this case died. And that's the shame of this case. And that, from my point of view, the shame of the state of Ohio, preventing a murder victim family member from getting criminal resolution. That's part of the difficulty of this case. That's part of the kind of convolution of this civil system versus the criminal system. Which makes it a lower pitch. It makes it a lower pitch. It makes it more of an intellectual exercise than kind of the basic crime and sensation, etc.
YP- And your suspect is Richard Eberling, the person that your team has maintained is really the primary suspect and the person with the real motive to kill Marilyn Sheppard, is that correct?
SRS- Well, people can read our book "Mockery Of Justice". The state of Ohio, in 1954, had one suspect. And they over committed, and they had to convict him, and they did. And they almost executed him. Fortunately, they didn't. We reinvestigated the case in our book "Mockery Of Justice". We traced through, in purposes of the civil case, there were several suspects around who were very, very serious, and could have done it. I believe, personally, in we have a load of evidence, and it could be a whole other book, perhaps. I know Mr. Neff is writing a book right now. We've solved the case. It was Richard Eberling. But we will never get that criminal resolution. The state of Ohio has blocked us on that. And I think it's a crying shame.
YP- You say that in your opinion, the case is solved. That this is resolved. However..it was revealed a settlement could have been reached. Therefore, preventing all of this to happen. This court case that we're in right now.
SRS- That's not true. At this point, in terms of balisity around this issue, that is not true information. There is a difference between settlement and negotiation and prosecution. There is a difference between having a starting point of conversation, of trying to talk about very good issues in negotiations, in confidential negotiations, which it should be. And it not being an offer, so to speak. So that difference has been misapplied here and that's part of the misinformation. And that's all I can say right now.
There was no offer. There was no agreement that there was to be a settlement. It was not even agreed to that. So that was a lie, and this information has been floated out here. We do not want to build more fire around it.
YP- People would infer from that, that this is really motivated by a financial settlement.
SRS- That's why a confidentiality was violated. There is a difference between talking about some kind of negotiation which was just a primary step. An excruciating point of even talking about that possibility. And I have said publicly again; my dad was not half way innocent. I don't see how a settlement could have happened. And that's why a violation happened here and people are under censure right now. We need to hold our fire right now on that issue.
YP- Do you think if the jury would have been included in this type of information, it would have maybe changed the direction of where you're going?
SRS- Absolutely. It would have poisoned the jury that that process was happening. In the middle of my testimony, an officer of the state marches out in public and gives out confidential information. And misinformation about that confidential information. Giving a wrong impression. That's called poison. That's wrong. So there are censure measures being explored right now.
YP- You had talked about how this is somewhat painful for you to relive. But are you comfortable with how the process has been going so far?
SRS- Well, I'm very disappointed that we have been not afforded the chance to solve my mother's murder in the criminal law. We have been stymied that way. Our suspect died. Ohio won on that level...it's not the fault of the criminal justice system, it's the fault of the state of Ohio, bumping the case up to the Supreme Court. And delaying, and delaying. So, as far as this process is gone, I'm pleased with it. We've gotten our evidence on the table in public. I'm very glad about that. But it's very difficult. We're being fought every inch of the way. It's very difficult. It's very tedious. And it looks like it's going to be very time consuming for all of us. So that's difficult, sure.
YP- But you're here surrounded by your family. You have friends who are supporting you. That must help.
SRS- Oh, of course. I'm very, very fortunate. I have friends and family support being here supporting me. We've had volunteer people, people donating things. Where we're staying has been half priced. It's very helpful. I don't have a job right now, etc.. so, it's difficult. The longer this goes, the longer we're in sacrifice. But again, this is not just about the Sheppard family. This is about the system itself. Cuyahoga county is on the defense here. They wrongfully incarcerated my father for 10 years. They nearly took his life. They do that too often. Our system is not being responsible and accountable for itself. And that's why we're fighting very hard to say the system has to be accountable and responsible when it makes mistakes. Because if not, that's how we, the American people, are losing confidence in our system of justice in this country. And if we don't do something about that, as citizens, then we're going to lose our criminal justice systems. Very, very few people have confidence in the system, and are cynical about it. These prosecutors, and their offices, run around and make mistakes. And they can just smile about it and wipe their hands, and say oh well, gee whiz, and then they walk off into the sunset. That's got to stop. So we're drawing a line with the Sheppard case and I think that's why we have a lot of support in the street, and otherwise from the people.