Given the media hype in the 1950s surrounding the Sam Sheppard murder case, it's no surprise that one of the biggest trials of the 20th century is also one of the most misunderstood. The inspiration behind the TV show and movie The Fugitive, the case is now a cultural touchstone that transcends generations.
Briefly, the story goes like this: on the morning of July 4, 1954, Sam Sheppard, a wealthy Cleveland doctor, called authorities to tell them his wife, Marilyn, had been brutally murdered. He claimed that he grappled with an intruder who knocked him out, and upon coming to, discovered the body of his wife. The police didn't believe him. Sheppard's history of philandering and a reputed hot temper cast further doubt on his assertions about the killing. Consequently, he was convicted of murder and sentenced to prison. Years later, however, he was retried and acquitted, and over the past decade his son, using DNA testing, seems to have proved that his late father could not possibly be the murderer. Now, Jim Neff, a reporter and Cleveland native, has taken on the daunting task of piecing together the events of the case. He dug through 50-year-old files, interviewed witnesses and talked to a man who may have been the real killer.
Proceeding in a chronological sequence, Neff lays out the events of that fateful morning: how Sheppard first called his neighbor, the mayor of the Cleveland bedroom community where he lived, before calling the police. How the mayor himself and his wife became suspects. And how a resentful coroner, a judge who had already made up his mind and a city driven to a frenzy by a press that seems rabid even by today's standards made it almost a certainty that the accused would be convicted.
Amazingly, the injustice perpetrated against Sheppard stands apart from the question of whether or not he actually committed the crime. The author makes a persuasive case for Sheppard's innocence, but like any good mystery, The Wrong Man leaves you wondering. Even with all the information in Neff's thorough and exhaustively researched account, it's still hard to say who killed Marilyn on that July morning nearly 50 years ago.
James Neal Webb does copyright research for Vanderbilt University in Nashville.