- Associated Press - Thursday, December 3, 2015

CLEVELAND (AP) - Marilyn Sheppard may be dead, but her unresolved murder case never will be.

It was the focus of three trials that spanned 46 years and spawned countless books, movies and TV series. It changed the way judges run trials and reporters cover them.

On Nov. 13 it became a teaching tool at Cleveland State University’s Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, where a judge and four lawyers involved in the last trial participated in a 6-hour continuing legal education seminar.

“If anyone told me six months ago that I’d be in front of 150 people speaking at a conference on the Sheppard case, I’d think you were crazy,” said Terry Gilbert, lead counsel for the Sheppard estate in what has come to be called simply “the third trial.”

“I thought after the 2000 verdict that most people were tired of it.”

He said he was participating in the seminar only because of his involvement in the Innocence Project, which is dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals through DNA testing and to reforming the criminal justice system.

Stressing the importance of evidence preservation because of advances in forensic technology, he hoped to win agreement that blood evidence in the Sheppard case would be retested independently.

Retired Cleveland Municipal Court Judge C. Ellen Connally moderated and set the scene for the sessions on the three trials.

The first trial came five months after Marilyn Sheppard was found beaten to death in her Bay Village home, early on July 4, 1954. Her husband, Dr. Sam Sheppard, was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a writ of habeas corpus vacating the conviction a decade later because of the carnival atmosphere that pervaded the first trial. Next year is the 50th anniversary of that landmark decision, Sheppard v. Maxwell.

“It was the first time the court recognized that the press could prevent a fair trial,” Connally said.

Sheppard was retried in 1966. He was represented by a promising young attorney named F. Lee Bailey, whose alternate theory of the murder created reasonable doubt, resulting in a verdict of not guilty.

The third trial, early in 2000, was a civil case seeking a finding that “Dr. Sam” was actually innocent and therefore wrongly imprisoned for the slaying.

After weeks of testimony, the jury of eight deliberated a mere three hours and unanimously ruled against the Sheppard estate in favor of the state of Ohio. Subsequent appellate decisions held that the civil suit never should have gone to trial in the first place because any claims ended with Sheppard’s death in 1970.

Brent Larkin, retired director of the Plain Dealer editorial pages and a former reporter, noted in a panel discussion that the burden of proof was a high one in the 2000 civil suit, as the question before the jurors was whether Sheppard was actually innocent of the crime.

“These jurors, 46 years after the fact, came away convinced that Sam Sheppard killed Marilyn,” he said.

Steven Dever and Dean Boland, former assistant Cuyahoga County prosecutors now in private practice, were part of the legal team defending the state in the third trial. Both agreed the jury, if given the chance, would have found Sheppard guilty of some form of murder.

Gilbert said that Sheppard’s 1966 acquittal “did nothing to change the belief by many people that he got away with murder.”

Even if there were video showing who killed Marilyn Shepherd, “some of those people would not change their beliefs,” he said.

The Cleveland-Marshall law library has been designated the permanent repository for evidence, artifacts and information in the Sheppard case. The huge collection is being digitized, and staff members said the online information has been accessed by people from all 50 states and more than 100 foreign countries at engagedscholarship.csuohio.edu/sheppard.

Dever, who prosecuted 100 murder trials, said that the 1966 Supreme Court decision has since been cited 50 times by the high court, and has been referenced by others more than 6,000 times.

Boland said that for years people drove by the former Sheppard home on Lake Road, near the Cleveland Metroparks’ Huntington Reservation, to gawk. Until it was razed in the 1990s, he said, it was “one of the most photographed crime scenes for that time.”

The owners of a home later built on the site eventually petitioned to have their address number changed to end the continual parade of sightseers.

Ronald Suster, who presided as judge in the last trial, said he was a boy and a passionate Indians fan when Marilyn Sheppard died.

“I couldn’t understand how this case pushed the Indians off the front page for months when they were on their way to being the winningest team in the American League,” he said.

___

Information from: The Plain Dealer, http://www.cleveland.com

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