Lady Godiva never rode naked through the streets of Coventry, Nero didn't really fiddle while Rome burned, and now a modern myth debunked: "The Fugitive" never fled. And he wasn't much of a hero, either. Sure, Harrison Ford is still thrilling audiences as Dr. Richard Kimble -- wrongly sentenced to death for the bludgeon-slaying of his wife, escaping from a prison-bound bus, deftly evading the grasp of his would-be captor while doggedly hunting the mysterious one-armed man. But that's Hollywood.
The true story that reputedly inspired the "Fugitive" phenomenon -- and the 1960s television series starring David Jansen -- is decidedly less noble, but perhaps even more intriguing. It was a case that captivated the country, resulted in one of America's more sordid media spectacles, launched an illustrious legal career, prompted a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the conduct of the press and ended, for the central figure in the drama, in almost unimaginable ignominy.
Like "The Fugitive," the story of Dr. Samuel Sheppard was about a miscarriage of justice. Exactly where justice collapsed, however, remains the eternal question. Was it when a man spent nearly a decade in prison, or was it when he was set free?
Some debate persists over just how solid the connection is between "The Fugitive" and the Sheppard murder case; the producers of both the movie and the TV series deny a direct link. But the circumstantial case, like the one against Sheppard, is persuasive. At the time the TV show was written and aired in 1963, the country was abuzz over the impending release from prison of a handsome young doctor from Cleveland who had served nine years of a life sentence for the bludgeon-murder of his wife. Sam Sheppard had not blamed a "one-armed man"; his culprit had been a "bushy-haired intruder" who was never found. A new trial was ordered.
Sheppard's ordeal began in the early-morning hours of July 4, 1954, when Marilyn Sheppard was beaten to death in her bedroom overlooking Lake Erie. She was 31, and four months pregnant with her second child.
The grieving widower, a successful Cleveland osteopath, maintained from the beginning that he had dozed off on the living room couch the night of the murder, only to be startled awake by his wife's screams for help. Racing upstairs, he said, he was confronted by a husky, bushy-haired man who knocked him unconscious. After regaining his senses, he said, he chased the man out to the beach but was again knocked out. Upon recovering from this second encounter, he returned to the blood-splattered bedroom to find his wife's corpse.
Almost immediately, Sheppard became the prime suspect. Despite his earnest protestations of innocence, his conduct did little to allay suspicion.
Day after day following the murder, Sheppard diagnosed himself physically unable to undergo questioning. Sporting a neck brace he maintained was the result of tangling with the bushy-haired man, he denied police allegations that he was "flagrantly stalling" the investigation. He said he was just following doctor's orders -- a doctor who happened to be his big brother, Stephen. He later refused to submit to lie-detector tests and questioning under sodium pentothal, so-called "truth serum."
The Cleveland media leaped on the case, yellow teeth bared. Customary standards of objectivity were misplaced. "Stop Stalling -- Bring Him In," demanded one newspaper. And what semblance of fairness remained in the press disappeared with the startling, sudden scent of another woman. Until that moment, the murder had seemed a passionate crime without passionate motive. And then arrived a pretty, 24-year-old nurse named Susan Hayes.
The police learned that Sheppard had recently given Hayes, who had worked for him, a gold watch. Initially, both doctor and nurse indignantly denied a personal relationship; the watch, they said, was merely a generous gift from employer to employee.
This turned out to be an unwise strategy, inasmuch as the story lasted only a few days, until Hayes broke down and confessed to a long-standing torrid affair. She told police she loved Dr. Sam, that their relationship had been anything but platonic and that the gold watch was merely the last of several presents he had showered on her.
Accompanied by openly gleeful press accounts, Sam Sheppard was arrested and charged with first-degree murder on July 31 -- still wearing his neck brace. Sheppard confessed to the affair, saying he had lied before because he had not wanted to "smear the Sheppard name," a curious stance in light of weeks of headlines accusing him of the savage murder of a pregnant woman.
After a grand jury indictment, Sheppard went on trial for his life in October 1954. His attorneys had lost their bid to have the trial delayed or moved because of what they argued was the enormous amount of prejudicial publicity. "Under the guise of news," the lawyers said in a statement that exemplified the high drama that would come to characterize their style, "the Cleveland newspapers and newspapers generally have reported and editorialized on the case ... so that he was convicted in the minds of the public before he was arrested and charged. If they listen closely they may hear the creaking of the ropes backstage, which can indicate that the curtain may be beginning to fall on the Constitutional guarantees of the individual and the press."
The trial became a symphony of circumstantial evidence, with sex the heart of the prosecution's case against a "philandering wife-slayer." Details of the Hayes affair were meticulously dissected, with other possible liaisons explored. Witnesses testified about discussions they had had with Sheppard about a possible divorce. Marilyn Sheppard was murdered, the prosecution asserted, by a raging husband as the couple fought over his extramarital affairs.
The prosecution sought to discredit Sheppard's neck injury, producing one witness who testified the doctor had once advised her that a head injury was the easiest to fake. Even a friendly medical witness described the injury as a possible chip fracture -- "a little thing."
Bloodstains were found in the basement and garage of the Sheppard home, according to an expert witness, indicating that the killer roamed about the house after the murder -- movements that would contradict Sheppard's claim that he surprised the bushy-haired man and chased him outside. Testimony also indicated Sheppard's fingerprints were found on his wife's bed and that his watch was caked with her blood. The coroner produced a pillowcase he said bore the imprint of the murder weapon (never found), resembling some type of lobster-claw surgical instrument. A cousin of Marilyn Sheppard's related an incident in which Sam flew into a wild rage at his young son after the child playfully hit him.
Plus: No signs of forcible entry. Lights on in the house. A watchdog that never barked. Taken together, this all militated against the presence of an "intruder."
The defense presented Sheppard as a kind, stable man whose very profession made him incapable of murder. It sought to discredit some of the state's witnesses, besieging the police methodology. The attack perhaps went too far when Sheppard's brother, Stephen -- the prescriber of the neck brace -- testified that some of the evidence had been tampered with, including Marilyn Sheppard's body, apparently in a clumsy police effort to implicate the doctor. During a cross-examination the following day, however, Stephen admitted he had lied about this. It was an altogether sorry spectacle. But was it a noble if misguided attempt to protect a railroaded innocent, or a cynical effort to save the hide of a murderer?
Sam Sheppard testified that the police had guaranteed him the lighter charge of manslaughter if he would confess to the crime. "I couldn't confess to something I didn't do," he said. In what was a display of either shocking remorselessness or stirring grief and love -- it was certainly grand theater, regardless -- Sheppard thanked the memory of his dead wife for giving him the strength to withstand the torment of the false accusations against him. "She's absolutely in my corner."
All of this played out in the midst of what could only be described as a media carnival. During the nine weeks of the trial, reporters' movements in and out of the courtroom created so much hubbub that at times witnesses could not be heard. Sheppard and his lawyers were so surrounded by press they often had to leave the courtroom to speak in privacy.
The New York Herald Tribune chronicled the dramatic conclusion: "Defense Counsel William J. Corrigan's summation was marked by references to the Constitution, communist oppression, God, sacred and profane love, and Christmas. ... Assistant Defense Counsel Fred J. Garmone was melancholy and subdued as he told the jury that he was putting into their hands 'the body of a man 30 years young ... more than an immortal pearl.' " Garmone dismissed the issue of Sheppard's extramarital dalliance with the admonition to the jury that "he who is without sin should cast the first stone."
It did. After five days of deliberation, the jury pronounced Sheppard guilty of murder in the second degree. The jurors found that while Sheppard had purposefully beaten his wife to death, there was no premeditation. Because of that distinction, he was spared the electric chair. The judge immediately pronounced a sentence of life imprisonment, with parole consideration in 10 years.
Sam Sheppard spent the next nine years in jail (a sometimes colorful incarceration marked at one point by the doctor becoming a human guinea pig, allowing live cancer cells to be injected into his body). There was no bus accident to free him -- no opportunity to hunt for the bushy-haired stranger. Having exhausted his avenues of appeal all the way through the U.S. Supreme Court, his fate would come to be determined not by his own cunning and righteousness, but by an up-and-coming Boston attorney named F. Lee Bailey.
Ten years after Marilyn Sheppard's murder, Bailey succeeded in obtaining a new trial for his client, arguing in a habeas corpus writ that his constitutional rights had been violated by the "Roman holiday" atmosphere of the first trial. "If ever there was a trial by newspaper," wrote a federal judge in his ruling, "this is a perfect example." Freed on bond pending the new trial, Sheppard immediately married his prison pen pal, a West German divorcee named Adriane Tabbenjohanns to whom he had become engaged after meeting her face-to-face for four hours.
(This was during "The Fugitive's" first season on TV. Bailey says to this day that the Sheppard case was unquestionably the single greatest impetus for the TV show, and that he had been told so unequivocally at the time by one of the scriptwriters. The producers of the show call it all coincidence, pointing out that the theme of a wronged man hounded by a relentless pursuer is as old as Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables." No one, however, seriously argues that the publicity generated by the Sheppard case was entirely unrelated to the success of the show.)
After Sheppard's release, an appeals court overturned the federal judge's ruling, but on June 6, 1966, in an 8 to 1 decision, the Supreme Court upheld it, and ordered a new trial.
Justice Tom C. Clark, who announced the court's decision, cited a litany of "flagrant episodes" that made a "bedlam" out of the trial and "celebrities" out of the jurors, and admonished the press about the "impropriety" of publishing material not brought out at trial. Clark cited the original judge's refusal to ask jurors if they had heard a radio broadcast in which a commentator accused Sheppard of perjury and likened him to Alger Hiss. The judge had denied a continuance, saying, "We can't stop people, in any event, listening to it." Clark also cited an eight-column headline telling of a witness who would relate Sheppard's "Jekyll-Hyde" temper in "bombshell" testimony that was never produced. And he cited an apparently erroneous Walter Winchell broadcast heard by at least two jurors that a woman in New York claimed to be Sheppard's mistress, and had borne a love child. The judge had simply accepted the jurors' statements that they were unaffected.
Clark maintained that the jury should have been sequestered and that "the carnival atmosphere" -- that included jurors allowed to freely roam about the courthouse, mingling with reporters -- could have been avoided. The judge, however, in the middle of a heated reelection campaign, "lost his ability to supervise."
Upon the Supreme Court's ruling, the state of Ohio ordered a new trial, declaring that "a heinous crime must be punished."
Exit the bushy-haired stranger, enter the left-handed lady.
As Sheppard's second trial commenced in 1966, Bailey's defense took a stunning new direction. The bushy-haired man was never mentioned! Instead Bailey introduced evidence that suggested Marilyn Sheppard was beaten to death by someone left-handed with "strength compatible to that of a woman" -- a person who undoubtedly had a key to the Sheppard home. The doctor himself never testified.
The state focused on largely the same circumstantial evidence it had produced in 1954. This time, however, the jury was unconvinced. Sam Sheppard was acquitted.
He soon revealed that he had smuggled a pistol into the courtroom the day of the verdict, prepared, he said, to wield it in the event he was found guilty, knowing that he would be instantly shot by armed guards. "I wasn't going back," he said.
Sheppard also paid loving tribute to his late wife when he maintained that the prosecution's "other woman" murder motive was bogus because Marilyn Sheppard knew of his affair and condoned it because of her own "frigidity." He did not explain how this frigid woman had come to be pregnant at the time of her death.
Sheppard's saga came to an end four years after his acquittal, when he died of cancer at age 46. His last years were spent acquiring a third wife, pushing his autobiography, which never went anywhere, and focusing on his new career.
Sam Sheppard, socialite, physician, celebrated wronged man, became a professional wrestler.
It was a grotesque end that, seemingly, even Hollywood could not stomach. In 1967, after a fabulously successful four-year run, "The Fugitive" went off the air.
Special correspondent John Greenya contributed to this story.