Tuesday, July 22, 2008

A little case of murder...

If you want to get a good night's sleep, don't start reading an engaging murder mystery at bedtime.

Tried to wind down last night with "The Wrong Man," James Neff's fast-paced, well-written account of the infamous 1954 murder of Marilyn Sheppard in the small suburb of Bay Village, Ohio. And, I proceeded to become enthralled in the tale for the next 5 or 6 hours. So much for slumber.

Most of you know, or have heard about, the story. Dr. Sam Sheppard was a well-respected osteopathic surgeon in a small bedroom community near Cleveland. He was a town big shot, friends with the Cleveland Browns quarterback, (Otto Graham) and the village's mayor, a neighbor.

And it was to the mayor that a distraught Sam Sheppard called for help in the early morning hours of July 4, 1954. Sheppard claimed that an intruder had knocked him out twice a few hours earlier and bludgeoned his wife Marilyn to death. The crime scene was a blood bath.

Those who immediately arrived at the house were sympathetic. Sheppard, himself injured, was taken to his family's hospital. But the county coroner, no friend to the Sheppard family, judged the good doctor to be guilty almost from the get-go. Hot shot Cleveland detectives came to the same conclusion. Both quickly began leaking to the city's three daily newspapers.

Sheppard's forthcoming trial turned into a media circus, the O.J. Simpson trial of its day. Famed Hearst columnist Dorothy Kilgallen showed up to cover the trial, took up Sheppard's cause, and later said she was "shocked" at the resulting guilty verdict. (Kilgallen later revealed that the judge told her that Dr. Sheppard was "guilty as hell.")

After serving in prison for several years (Sheppard narrowly missed the death penalty by being found guilty of second-degree murder), a then-unknown lawyer named F. Lee Bailey took up the doctor's cause. His conviction was overturned and declared a miscarriage of justice. Another trial was ordered; a jury acquitted Sheppard of the murder in 1966.

Forever haunted by the experience, Sheppard died, of liver failure, in 1970. Reports claimed he'd become an alcoholic, drinking as much as two-fifths of liquor a day. His last years were spent unhappily as a professional wrestler.

I've only made my way through the first part of Neff's book, but it appears that the author is setting out to forever prove that Sheppard was indeed innocent. I'll file a final report after I finish the book. The trial became part of popular culture, reportedly inspiring the classic 1960s TV series "The Fugitive" and the later Harrison Ford film based on the series.

There's nothing quite like a little case of murder to get the blood boiling. Just don't delve into it right at midnight, that is, if you plan on getting any sleep.

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