Sheppard's son takes steps to protest death penalty

April 04, 1995|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,Sun Staff Writer

With every step, Sam Sheppard exorcises demons that have haunted him since childhood, when prosecutors were trying to send his father to the electric chair for his mother's slaying.

As a child he had a repeated nightmare of his father -- or himself -- sitting in an electric chair as the switch was about to be pulled. He had periods of nausea and anguish.

The spells began to fade about six years ago when he started to talk about the experience and to speak against the death penalty. Now he's walking against capital punishment.

Mr. Sheppard stopped in Baltimore yesterday, in the middle of a 1,600-mile trek from Plymouth, Mass., to New Orleans, where he plans to attend a convention of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty in August. He started his walk Feb. 27.

"Part of the reason why I'm doing this walk is to talk to people, peacefully, and help change some minds," Mr. Sheppard said while relaxing at the dining room table in the Mayfield home of Jeanne Fischer, who describes herself as "a friend of the cause."

His father's case was the most widely known criminal trial in the United States of its time and is credited with having inspired "The Fugitive" television series.

In the 1954 case, an Ohio jury convicted his father, Dr. Sam Sheppard, of the second-degree murder of his wife in their home outside Cleveland. Prosecutors had sought the death penalty.

The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the verdict 10 years later, ruling that Dr. Sheppard did not receive a fair trial because of pretrial publicity, which it said created a "carnival atmosphere." He was acquitted in a second trial in 1966 while being represented by lawyer F. Lee Bailey. His son said he was a broken man when he died four years later.

Mr. Sheppard, 47, blamed his father's conviction on a media-driven frenzy of fear and vengeance. He said that frenzy prevails today, when most Americans favor the death penalty, although polls show that the number of people supporting it drop when asked if murderers instead should receive sentences of life in prison without parole.

He acknowledged that it was the prospect that his father could have been executed that shaped his views against capital punishment.

"When I was 7, I was terrorized by the death penalty," Mr. Sheppard said. "I lived through the trauma of my mother's murder and then five months later in December 1954, the state of Ohio asked a jury to execute my father. I call that terror."

He said it was cathartic for him to begin speaking publicly against the death penalty in 1989. Now he's going a step further with his trek, which he calls "an act of conscience."

Mr. Sheppard believes capital punishment can even make heroes of murderers. One example, he said, is the case of John Frederick Thanos, who became the first person to be executed in Maryland in 33 years.

"He probably was the most famous person in Maryland, wasn't he?" Mr. Sheppard said. "He was more famous than the good people. They gave him exactly what he wanted. We make these anti-heroes into the most famous people in the state and in the country."

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