Journey To Justice Sam Reese Sheppard has spent years trying to clear his father's name, and a lifetime trying to find peace of mind for himself.

March 09, 1997|By Alice Kahn | Alice Kahn,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

OAKLAND, CALIF. — OAKLAND, Calif.-- The day after O.J. Simpson was declared liable for the murder of his wife, Sam Reese Sheppard went looking for the news he'd waited 43 years to announce. New DNA evidence might finally prove beyond a doubt that his father did not kill his mother in another "crime of the century," one that filled front pages through two trials and 11 appeals spanning several decades.

But on this day, the newspapers were devoted to Simpson. The news about his father was buried deep in the back pages.

The irony was not lost on Reese Sheppard. After a lifetime dominated by unwanted media attention, he could not get it when he finally had something to say.

The spectacular case that focused on his father, Dr. Sam Sheppard, the handsome Ohio physician who was accused of murdering his pregnant wife on Independence Day 1954, inspired the TV series and the movie "The Fugitive." In these glossy Hollywood entertainments, the suspect was an avenging hero who escaped prison and cleared himself completely in the end. Real life was less kind.

Dr. Sam Sheppard ended up a broken man, his family destroyed, the stain of his alleged crime never really erased. His only son, a 49-year-old survivor of much of the worst life has to offer, has been the true fugitive, simultaneously running from the ordeal that abruptly ended his childhood at age 7 and searching constantly for proof that his father was innocent.

For Sam Reese Sheppard, it has been a journey not just to clear his father and to accept the loss of his mother, but a personal search for solace and reconciliation.

A tall, fit man rides his bike through the produce market in the center of a city that is either decaying or reviving. He takes off his helmet, chains his bike, and enters the cafe. Sam Reese Sheppard's wide face suggests his father and mother. His closely cropped, receding hair, earring, jeans, and sport jacket suggest a bass player or multimedia artist.

A man of considerable intelligence and charm, he might have been a comfortable doctor, as his father, his uncles and grandfather had been. Instead, he lives a simple and frugal existence in the heart of Oakland, working part-time as a dental hygienist, living in one room in an arts community, practicing Zen Buddhism.

He's written a book on his father's case (due out in paperback next month), but the openness with which he talks about it is still surprising. He calmly discusses the most unnerving details: the ambitions of the Cleveland politicians who first tried the case, the pioneering work on "blood splatter" done at his boyhood home.

It is this old blood evidence that has brought Reese Sheppard back into the public eye again. New analysis of these and other crime scene samples, buried for 43 years in a Cleveland courthouse, has provided the oldest DNA evidence used in a murder case to date and may ultimately clear his father's name.

Forensic DNA specialist Mohammad Tahir, a crucial investigator in the Mike Tyson rape case and World Trade Center bombing, cloned and analyzed the material. His analysis points to the presence of someone other than Dr. Sheppard, his wife Marilyn and young Sam in the house at the time of the murder, a possibility not investigated by police at Sheppard's first trial in 1954.

Reese Sheppard will call it only "the unfair trial." The U.S. Supreme Court called it "bedlam" and "a carnival" when it overturned Sheppard's conviction and life sentence 10 years later.

The new medium of television was on hand to cover the 1954 trial. Helicopters hovered above unsequestered jurors. The print press, hot off the Red Scare, found an ideal new subject in Dr. Sheppard, the handsome osteopath, and his bludgeoned wife, a beauty named Marilyn, just like the movie star.

"My father was an American prince," says Reese Sheppard, and many took pleasure in the drama of his parents' saga: high school sweethearts living in a pretty suburban house who lost the American dream on the morning of the Fourth of July.

When it came out before the trial that Dr. Sheppard had had an extramarital affair, he was as good as guilty. The headlines grew ugly: "Quit Stalling - Bring Him In"; "Love Letters To Susan Bared As State Asks Death for Sam"; "But Who Will Speak for Marilyn?"

F. Lee Bailey, part of the Simpson "dream team," made his name in 1964 when he got Dr. Sheppard released from prison after 10 years to await a second trial. The morning after the most recent Simpson verdict, Bailey told ABC's "Good Morning America": "It's deja vu Sam Sheppard."

Reese Sheppard, who saw Bailey as a father figure and even lived with him for a while as a teen-ager, disagrees.

"The most important difference is that my dad was never associated with wife abuse," he says.

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