Textbook domestic homicide. That's what investigators and the local media agreed when considering the case of Sam Sheppard, who was convicted then later exonerated for the murder of his wife Marilyn in 1954. How could they get all have been so wrong?
It's one of many mysteries still swirling around this still unsolved case that has inspired not just an episode of Cold Case, "Schadenfreude," but also the hit '60s TV series The Fugitive, which was later re-made into a popular film in the 1990s. The staying power of Sheppard's story is, like most of Lilly's cases, all in the details.
Sam Sheppard was a well-respected doctor in an Ohio suburb, when one night he and his wife had some neighbors over for a small party. At the end of the night, Sam passed out watching a movie on the daybed downstairs, and his wife, who'd dutifully seen the neighbors out, went on up to bed in the master bedroom upstairs. The next morning, she was found there brutally bludgeoned to death, and her blood was found all over the floors of the house.
According to Sheppard's testimony, he awoke on the daybed to his wife's screams and sprinted up the stairs to help. Before he could reach her, a dark form entered the doorway and knocked Sheppard unconscious. The killer then dragged the husband's unconscious body downstairs, where he awoke later and had yet another physical altercation with the intruder who was still pilfering items around the house. This time, Sheppard chased the intruder outside, where the intruder knocked the husband unconscious again.
Once Sheppard awoke from his last blackout, he immediately called neighbors to help him. Those neighbors found him with no shirt on, standing in wet pants with a small bloodstain on the knee. Compared to the blood everywhere, it was nothing, but they described him as in shock when the police arrived. At that point, the police did not suspect Sheppard of the murder, although neighbors pointed out the Sheppards' dog, which always barks at strangers, was not heard by anyone all night.
The other thing is, the married couple weren't alone in the home. Their son slept through the murder, his mom's screams and his dad's physical exchanges with the intruder. These tiny details cast doubt on Sheppard's story, which is why two weeks after the muder, he was arrested. Despite the fact that his lawyer argued that his injuries backed up his story and the lack of blood on his clothes compared to the pools and spatter everywhere proved his innocence, it only took the jury four days to convict him.
But Sheppard would only serve 10 years of his sentence because an appeal would finally fall on the right ears, with a new district court judge calling the original trial a media circus and reversing the initial sentence. This turned the finger of blame on a handyman who'd been a suspect in the civil trial named Richard Eberling. Eberling was discovered to have stolen from the Sheppards by detectives working a separate case, who found a couple of the murdered wife Marilyn's rings in the handyman's possession.
Although they never actually solved this case, mostly because Eberling convincingly passed a polygraph test, Eberling was later convicted for the murder of a different woman and at that point, a former coworker admitted that in 1983, Eberling had confessed to the killing of Marilyn Sheppard.
The 1980s, coincidentally, brings us back to Cold Case, which is when the TV show's fictionalized version of these events takes place in the crime drama series. The episode "Schadenfreude" finds a cold case reopened after a murdered wife's valuable rings are discovered well after her doctor husband is convicted for her murder. It's one of the truest episodes to the actual true crime inspiration that we saw on the show, based on one of the most intriguing overturned cases in U.S. history.
EVERY DAY AT 3 PM EASTERN