By: Craig Lyons
© Copyright 2007, Keene Equinox
On July 4, 1954 the pregnant wife of Cleveland Osteopath Dr. Sam Sheppard was found dead in her bedroom, stabbed more than 24 times.
The brutal murder of Marilyn Sheppard rocked the sleepy suburb of Bay View, Ohio and soon became the obsession of the media, the people of Cleveland and the rest of the United States. After three trials over the course of five decades, questions still linger about the killer's identity.
Almost 36 years after the Sheppard murder, an equally shocking murder enveloped New Hampshire. On May 1, 1990 the trigger was pulled and the bullet killed Greg Smart, the case quickly became the 1990s version of media and public fixation on the crime, the victims and the accused.
Both cases reflect the dynamics, intentions and collisions between the public's right to know and a defendant's right to a fair trial. And that intersection of rights in both cases was the media coverage of the two murder cases.
After Pam Smart was convicted, she began a lengthy appeals process. Throughout Smart's appeals process, her legal team contended the extent of the media coverage prevented her from a fair trial, particularly since it was televised live throughout the state.
For Smart's legal team, the media circus surrounding her case has become her battle cry and the basis for her petition for commutation filed in 2004.
"Ms. Smart was denied her right to a fair trial as a result of the media frenzy surrounding it," read the petition for commutation packet. "A case cannot be properly tried if the court is unable to seat an impartial jury because of prejudicial pretrial publicity or an inflamed community atmosphere."
On Dec. 21, 1954, the 18-man jury found Sheppard guilty of the murder of Marilyn Sheppard. Sheppard was given a life sentence although given the chance to apply for parole after serving 10 years.
Over 37 years later, on March 22, 1991, Smart was found guilty and given a life sentence without the chance of parole. Following her conviction, Smart's lawyers began their way down a long road of appeals, leading to her petition for commutation in late 2004.
The petition invokes the 1966 Supreme Court ruling of Sheppard v. Maxwell. The ruling concerned the effects of pre-trial publicity on a case and how it may or may not taint the jury pool.
Aside from the impact of the media both the Smart and Sheppard cases share the thread of adultery. Smart's affair was widely documented and exploited by the media as the lurid details poured from the witness stand. While Sheppard's affair was also brought before the court in the form Susan Hayes and latched onto by the press. Speculations still are discussed on Marilyn Sheppard's affair with Bay Village Major Lester Houk and how it may have resulted in her murder.
As a result of the initial coverage, the innocence of Sheppard is still debated and the picture of the murderer from 1954 resonates in the memories of Cleveland residents, who have grown up with the murder and its aftermath.
"I was always aware of the case," said James Neff, investigation editor for the Seattle Times and author of "the Wrong Man," an examination of the Sheppard case. "I found the further I got from Cleveland, people saw something was wrong."
Neff spent over 10 years researching the case. "It convinced me very clearly Dr. Sam is innocent," said Neff.
The media vested such an interest in the case because of the circumstances of the murder and the fact both the accused killer and victim were both young and attractive, according to Neff.
"The media stories infected the jury pool," said Neff. The Supreme Court ruling was mostly about judicial conduct, added Neff.
The case became the focus of the local media, including the Cleveland Press which published editorials aggressively attacking the investigation as too lax.
Editorials like "Somebody is getting away with murder," "Why no inquest? Do it now Dr. Gerber" and "Quit stalling and bring him in" were authored by late editor Louis B. Seltzer, of the now defunct Cleveland Press.
"Sheppard was tried and found guilty before the trial in the media," said Gilbert. "The circus atmosphere clearly deprived him of a fair trial."
Just as New England was riveted to the Smart case starting in 1991, Cleveland's obsession with the Sheppard case has been ongoing since 1954.
Oct. 18, 1954 the trial was set to begin when Judge Edward Blythin requested to see famed crime reporter Dorothy Kilgallen. Kilgallen went to the judge's chambers and began talking about her presence at the trial.
Blythin told her, "He's guilty as Hell. There's no doubt about it," according to Killgalen's deposition for F. Lee Bailey, Sheppard's lawyer, in 1964.Kilgallen's deposition was part of the case that brought Sheppard to the Supreme Court, although she died before the ruling. The Supreme Court ruled in 1966 that Sheppard could not have received a fair trial because of the media coverage.
"It was a judge who did not guarantee a fair trial to Dr. Sam Sheppard," said Neff.
Following the Supreme Court ruling, Sheppard was retried and found not guilty.
After the trial, Sheppard started practicing medicine again, but left practice after being sued for malpractice. He then started a short career as a professional wrestler, following the divorce from his second wife. Sheppard was found dead on April 6, 1970 at age 47.
Following his death, his son, Sam Reese Sheppard, continued fighting to have his father's name cleared in connection with the murder. Sheppard's son then called "Chip" was woken up in his pajamas and taken from the house on the morning of his mother's murder.
"In Sheppard it was documented how outrageous the media coverage contaminated the trial," said Terry Gilbert, attorney for Sam Reese Sheppard in the 2000 civil trial. Sam Reese Sheppard started civil proceeding to have his father declared innocent rather than not guilty.
After the proceedings the jury returned a verdict of not guilty, rather than innocent. Sam Reese Sheppard and Gilbert appealed the decision only to be denied.
The 1966 decision was one of the first rulings by the Supreme Court in the area of media coverage of the courts.
"Bearing in mind the massive pretrial publicity, the judge should have adopted stricter rules governing the use of the courtroom by newsmen, as Sheppard's counsel requested. The number of reporters in the courtroom itself could have been limited at the first sign that their presence would disrupt the trial," read the Supreme Court opinion. "Furthermore, the judge should have more closely regulated the conduct of newsmen in the courtroom."
Since the court ruling, both lawyers and reporters receive training on the effects of pretrial publicity because of the Sheppard case.
"It set a standard in the area of pre-trial publicity," said Mary Flood, reporter at the Houston Chronicle and a lawyer. Flood covered courts since about 1979, except for a 6-year period, while attending law school and practicing law.
Flood has been covering the Enron trials for the last few years. "It [the ruling] was set because the local press before the trial went so overboard."
The Supreme Court opinion declared the media circus surrounding the pre-trial coverage, even extending to media presence inside the courtroom as the trial was proceeding prevented Sheppard's ability to have a fair trial.
Also included in the ruling were measures for the court to take to protect a defendant's rights to a fair trial.
According to Flood, some of the controls put in place by the ruling were sequestering the jury, a change of venue, pushing back the start date of a trial and the more extreme of issuing gag orders to the involved attorneys.
"Parties sometimes play to the cameras, especially in gavel to gavel on camera," said Gilbert. "I think even now there is still real potential for the media to create a bias in the trial process."
"It's a trend of the media in making entertainment out of the courtroom," said Flood.
Gilbert said it is the responsibility of the media industry to control itself.
Although these controls are in place, Smart's petition concluded, "The failure of the trial court to properly control and manage the publicity surrounding Ms. Smart's trial resulted in inherent and irreversible prejudice to her."
Although, her petition was denied in July, it ignited a slew of media interest in the case.
Both trials are examples of cases igniting a media frenzy.
"You cannot create a fictional story as interesting and exciting as real life crime and trial," said Gilbert. "All you can do is make sure the judges on the bench and jurors immunize themselves from that."
© Copyright 2007 Keene Equinox