February 14, 2000
Dr. Sam Sheppard's Trial Opens
By JOHN AFFLECK
CLEVELAND (AP) -- Three decades after Dr. Sam Sheppard's death, DNA evidence will help clear his name once and for all in the 1954 slaying of his wife, a lawyer told a jury Monday as the case that inspired TV's ``The Fugitive'' began unfolding in court all over again.
Prosecutors countered that Sheppard probably beat his wife to death because he was an unfaithful husband enraged at being trapped in his marriage.
``We don't know what lit the match, but something caused the powder keg of marital conflict to blow early on the morning of July 4,'' Cuyahoga County Prosecutor William Mason said in his opening statement.
Sam Reese Sheppard, the doctor's son, is suing the state, claiming his father was wrongfully imprisoned for killing his mother at the family home on Lake Erie.
In a case that inspired the movie and TV series ``The Fugitive,'' the doctor initially was convicted of murder and spent a decade in prison. But the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the verdict because of the effects of pretrial publicity on jurors and witnesses. Sheppard was acquitted at a retrial in 1966 and died four years later.
The doctor insisted all along that a bushy-haired intruder killed his wife.
During his opening statement, Sheppard attorney Terry Gilbert said that DNA evidence, ``a powerful new tool,'' will show through recently discovered blood samples that someone other than the Sheppards bled in the bedroom where she was killed.
``We are here to prove once and for all that Dr. Sheppard was innocent of the murder of his wife,'' Gilbert said.
Gilbert also said he will try to show that Richard Eberling, a former window washer for the Sheppards, is the most likely suspect. Eberling died in 1998 while serving a life sentence for another murder.
The lawyer argued that Sheppard was a victim of a rush to judgment.
``Sometimes things go very, very wrong and lives are ruined. When the state makes a mistake it should be held accountable,'' Gilbert said.
Sheppard's lawyer at his second trial, F. Lee Bailey, was the Sheppard team's first witness. He said he recently learned about evidence prosecutors withheld from him, including a flashlight that could have been the murder weapon.
For the younger Sheppard to win the case, six members of the eight-member jury must decide that the majority of evidence indicates the doctor was innocent. The younger Sheppard then could claim damages in a separate court action.
In their opening statement, prosecutors said the Sheppards' marriage was badly strained by the doctor's repeated and widely known extramarital affairs. The weekend of her murder, Mrs. Sheppard was angry with her husband because a house guest had been speaking about one of the doctor's lovers openly, they said.
The prosecutors argued that the nature of Mrs. Sheppard's death -- she was hit 27 times on the head and face with a blunt object -- indicate the actions of someone in a rage, not a sexual assailant or a burglar.
Mason made his point by pounding some rolled-up paper into his hand and counting the blows up to 27.
Prosecutor Steve Dever said Eberling was set up as the ``fall guy'' in the early 1990s by Cynthia Cooper, who wrote a book about the case with Sam Reese Sheppard. Cooper wanted to sell books and using Eberling as alternative suspect made that task easier, Dever said.
Bailey suggested in 1966 that the Sheppards' neighbor Esther Houk might have delivered the fatal blows after catching her husband, Spencer Houk, having sex with Mrs. Sheppard.
When Dever pressed him on the theory during cross-examination, Bailey said he knew of Eberling but did not consider him a likely suspect.
In addition to DNA analysis, other technology that wasn't available at the time of the previous two trials will play a role in the courtroom.
Gilbert used video footage from Sheppard's first trial in 1954 and slides to illustrate his points, while prosecutors used a computer-generated model to give a virtual representation of the path the doctor claimed to have taken the morning of the murder.
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