Even Sam Deserved Fair Trial


August 10, 1991|By JAMES J. KILPATRICK

WASHINGTON — Washington. - In the early hours of July 4, 1954, police in Bay Village, Ohio, received a call to come at once to the home of Dr. Samuel H. Sheppard. There they found Sheppard's pregnant wife, Marilyn, bludgeoned to death. As the country anticipates the trial of William Kennedy Smith for rape, it may be useful to look back at the trial of Dr. Sam.

A jury found him guilty. His appeal eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court. Justice Tom Clark's opinion, as it may apply to Willie Smith, is in point.

Sheppard denied the murder, but police thought he was lying. More to the point, so did a clamorous press. Overnight the story became an international sensation.

There were three newspapers in Cleveland then, and they played the story for all it was worth. Radio and television joined the hue and cry. Editorial writers leaped upon the police for their delay in filing charges. One editorial attributed the ineptness to ''friendships, relationships, hired lawyers.''

Reporters delved into Sheppard's personal life. They discovered an extramarital love affair. The papers portrayed Sheppard as a Lothario. They reveled in his relationship with Susan H., and named a number of other women who allegedly were involved with him.

Sensational pretrial publicity was pervasive. The coroner moved an inquest to a high school gymnasium to accommodate the crowd. Editorial writers charged that Sheppard had been left free to go about his business, ''shielded by his family, protected by a smart lawyer who has made monkeys of the police.''

On the night of July 30 Sheppard at last was arrested and formally charged. Police took him to the Bay Village City Hall where hundreds of people, newscasters, photographers and reporters were awaiting his arrival.

The prosecution repeatedly made evidence available to the news media which was never offered in the trial. The defense leaked stories of its own. Sheppard's lawyers accumulated five thick scrapbooks of press clippings about the notorious Dr. Sam.

Sheppard finally went on trial in October 1954. The selection of impartial jurors turned into a media circus. The pretrial publicity, as Justice Clark would say later, had been ''massive, pervasive and prejudicial.''

Following the verdict of guilty, the long process of appeals began. On June 6, 1966, the Supreme Court reversed the conviction.

In its 8-to-1 decision, the court found that Sheppard had been denied an atmosphere of ''calmness and solemnity.'' At the trial itself, ''bedlam reigned.'' Most of the pretrial revelations of the defendant's sexual affairs never were admitted in evidence. The trial was fundamentally unfair. As a consequence, Dr. Sam had been denied ''due process'' under the 14th Amendment.

Just as the media in 1954 shortened Dr. Samuel H. Sheppard to ''Sam,'' so the media now have abbreviated William Kennedy Smith to ''Willie.'' Once again, both prosecution and defense have leaked tips to an eager press.

The charge against Willie is rape. The state would like to introduce in court allegations of his previous sexual assaults. Defense lawyers have let it be known that two can play the game of reputation; they may question the complainant about her illegitimate child, her methods of contraception, and her psychological history.

All the elements are present for another media circus. A salivating public awaits details of high life in Palm Beach. The alleged attack occurred at the ''Kennedy compound,'' with the most notorious of all U.S. senators on the scene.

The Sheppard case involved charges of obstruction of justice. We have heard the same charges against friends and protectors of Willie.

If the defendant is to have a fair trial, and if the woman accuser is not to be further defamed, this uproar has to be quieted now. Both the prosecution and the defense have been put under orders not to talk to the press. These orders ought to be strictly enforced.

A postponement of at least three months clearly is required. The trial might desirably be shifted to a Florida county far removed from Palm Beach, up in the Pensacola panhandle.

For my own part, I know no more of Willie Smith than I have read in the papers, but I have spent a lifetime covering courts, and I know poisonous clouds of pretrial publicity when I see them.

Willie may be a lecher, but even a lecher deserves a fair trial.

James J. Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.

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