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The Dr. Sam Sheppard Murder Case: Forensics & Conviction

Updated on December 16, 2012
Dr. Sam Sheppard and his Father at trial.
Dr. Sam Sheppard and his Father at trial. | Source

The Case: Dr. Sam Sheppard

"My God, Spence, get over here quick. I think they’ve killed Marilyn. Get over here quick”.

Dr. Sam Sheppard uttered these frantic words to his neighbor, J. Spencer Houk, on the early morning of July 4, 1954, after supposedly awakening from an unconscious state. Sheppard’s phone call became the start of a murder investigation that still puzzles scientists and investigators to this day.

Dr. Sam Sheppard was a respectable practicing osteopathic surgeon who was supposedly attacked in his home after the murder of his wife, Marilyn Sheppard. On the morning after the murder, Dr. Sheppard informed police that he had been dozing on the coach when he was woken by the screams of his wife. He confronted and chased a “man with a good sized head and bushy hear” down to the beach, where Dr. Sam reported to be rendered unconscious from a blow over the head after engaging in a fight with the man.

Marilyn Sheppard was found bludgeoned to death in her bed, the house was ran-shacked, though nothing was stolen, Sam Sheppard was rushed to the hospital with injuries, and there seemed to be no evidence of a third party involved.

Dr. Sam stuck to his story of innocence throughout the investigation, despite evidence, witnesses, and a public that thought otherwise which, ultimately, led to his conviction.

The Dr. Sam Sheppard case is a case that was riddled with missed interpretation of evidence, single minded police, a media that was out for blood, and an investigation that brought justice years too late.

Reagents

Luminal:

is an extremely sensitive reagent that is known to detect bloodstains diluted to as little as 1 in 100,000.

Benzidine:

An enzyme in blood causes the oxidation of benzidine to a distinctively blue-coloured derivative

Sheppard's bloody watch
Sheppard's bloody watch | Source

Blood Identicication

Forensic Science was still relatively new in its applications during the mid-nineteen-hundreds. There were no applications for DNA testing with blood. When it came to the identification of the uniqueness of blood, blood typing and species differentiation were the only means that were available for comparison.But it was blood typing and the physical aspects of blood that lead the jury to their decision.

There was actually little blood found throughout the house outside of the Marilyn’s room, but it was this blood that fascinated the prosecution during the trial. Henry E. Dombrowski, a Cleveland Police Department chemist, testified that “he and his assistants sprayed most of the house with liquid Luminal...circled the resultant spots with chalk…[and] cotton-swabbed [the blood spots] with Benzidine” in order to test for blood (Pollack, 1957, 40). The defense cross-examined Dombrowski over the fact that Benzidine was known to react with “a strong blue green color” with “a great many other things” (Pollack, 1957, pg. 40). Dombrowski admitted later in the cross-examination that Benzidine was known to react with “tomatoes, cherries, berries, apples, limes, horseradish, carrots, and radishes” (Pollack, 1957, pg. 40-41). He also admitted that Benaidine does not distinguish between human and animal blood (Homles, 1971).

Mary Cowan, a chief medical technologist, testified that she was unable to type these blood stains as either “Sam’s blood, Group A, or Marilyn’s blood, Group O with an M factor” (Pollack, 1957, pg. 41), but this finding did not deter the state from arguing that the blood was Sam’s, since Cowan was able to determine that six of these spots were human using an anti-human serum to test it against. Cowan also testified to finding sand and hair consistent with that of Marilyn’s in Sam Sheppard’s pants.

How Luminal Works
How Luminal Works | Source

Luminal

While luminal could have detected the blood that was presumed to have been transferred throughout the house on the night of the murder, it could also have reacted with the blood of the Sheppards’ dog, Koko, whom Eleanora Helms, the Sheppards’ maid, testified had recently been in heat.

The connection that the blood was that of Sam is inconclusive. All that Dombrowski was able to prove was that, according to the results obtained from the anti-human test, the blood was human, and, thus, eliminating that one spot from being the dog’s.

Mary Cowan was able to determine that there was more human blood present throughout the house, due to her finding it on the basement stairs, the kitchen, and living room. While these few drops proved the presence of human blood, they could not determine how recent the blood was.

Marilyn's Pillow.
Marilyn's Pillow. | Source
Marilyn's Skull.
Marilyn's Skull. | Source

Marilyn's Pillow

Another expert that the prosecution offered up against Dr. Sam Sheppard was a Dr. Samuel R. Gerber, the coroner of Cuyahoga County. Gerber testified that the void in Marilyn’s pillow had to have been caused by a “heavy two-bladed surgical instrument."

When cross-examined, Gerber stated that the murder weapon that had made the impression into Marilyn’s pillow had to have been a surgical instrument and no other. Gerber made the argument that this kind of instrument was the kind that was readily available to any surgeon.

By presenting such evidence, Gerber was pointing a finger at Sheppard as the murderer. The defense never directly got Gerber to retract that the imprint was caused by a surgical instrument till the retrial in 1966, when the defense pinned Gerber for his lack of ability to produce such an instrument.

Source

How the Press led the Conviction

The Jury, during the first trial, found that Dr. Sam Sheppard was guilty of second degree murder. Sheppard would go on to serve over ten years in prison before his retrial in 1966. While there was great debate, and quite some confusion, over the presentation of blood evidence, it was the media that played one of the biggest roles in determining the public’s opinion of Sheppard guilt.

The press found a good story and ran with it until it became a competition to see who had the best front page. The Cleveland Press said the prime suspect had been whisked away from the murder scene to be “protected by his family who covered up for him,” when, in fact, he had been taken to the hospital due to a possible concussion and other injuries (Pollack, 1967, pg. 12).

Just like a high school rumor, the next day half of the nation was crying foul with little or no knowledge of what really happened. Sheppard was seemingly turned on due to the lack of suspects. Sheppard was seemingly convicted of murder from the start.

While the nation was finally convinced of his guilt after his incarceration, there were still those who believed in his innocence. And in 1966, Sheppard finally got his chance at a retrial, though it was a little late to say, “I am sorry.”

Marilyn Found Murdered in her bed.
Marilyn Found Murdered in her bed. | Source

Blood Spatter Analysis

Dr. Paul Leland Kirk, a professor of criminologists at the University of California, was brought in by William J. Corrigan, Sam Sheppard’s Lawyer, to analyze the house where the crime had been committed days after the verdict of guilty of second degree murder for the defendant. It was Corrigan’s first chance for an independent examination of the house since the murder was committed.

Dr. Kirk was the only one to pay close attention to the murder room, whereas others had been mainly concerned with blood drops that were found throughout the house. Dr. Kirk observed that “by far the most significant evidence to be found was the blood distribution in the murder room”(1961, pg. 219). He observed that “there were spots of blood on every wall…but no blood at all on the ceiling (Holmes, 1961, 219).

The lack of blood on the ceiling indicated that Marilyn was most likely struck horizontally. Kirk studied the bloods shape, angles, and shapes in order to determine the areas of origins from where the blood had originated from.

One area “of about two feet at the east end of the north wall” where there was “no blood spots” seemed to suggest that there was some obstacle that must have blocked the blood in order to cause such a void such as the person responsible for the murder (Holmes, 1961, pg. 219).

Kirk was also able to conclude that the offender was most likely left handed “based on the position of her, [Marilyn’s], body, the force and backswing of the murderer’s blows, and the pattern of the bloodstain on the walls” (Pollack, 1957, pg. 90). This was an interesting fact, since Dr. Sheppard was left handed.

Dr. Kirk
Dr. Kirk | Source

Dr. Kirk

Kirk was able to conclude more based off of the mere positioning of blood then the prosecution ever was with that of the chemical and biological make up of it. When he presented his findings during the 1966 retrial, the prosecution could hardly bring anything against his strong point, other than to validate them.Kirk was able to use similar points of origin to depict the position and number of blows received by the victim.

Dr. Kirk was an example of a true scientist at work. He was able to investigate a scene without the total bias of one side or the other. Kirks evidence seemed like the perfect opportunity for the grounds of a retrial, but the court denied it.

They were convinced that this evidence could have been collected before the verdict, and just because it was not; was not a ground for a retrial. It was not till 1966 when F. Lee Bailey, Sam Sheppard’s new lawyer, petitioned against the Supreme Court, that Sam would finally see his day in court.

Dr. Sam Sheppard Muder Case: Son seeks Killer

Scientific Bias

The Sam Sheppard Murder Case, in my opinion, was not handled correctly in any means. Law enforcement allowed their judgment to be based off first impressions. Scientist curved their results to get an outcome that they wanted.

Science does not lie, it is merely the scientist that chooses to corrupt it. It is amazing that the prosecution can decide that Sam was guilty based off of the facts that a few drops of blood that were deemed human were found at the scene. A mysterious surgical instrument that no one has ever seen, and the assumption of the Press at its best.

I will not say if I think Sheppard was innocent or not, but I will say that this investigation was not planned out well. Dr. Kirt, along with lawyers that had been behind Sheppard for years, was finally able to get him a fair trial, and a sentence of innocence. Kirk was able to use transfer patterns, blood spatter analyses, and intuition to bring about the release of an innocent man, in the eyes of the court.

Works:

Pollack Jack. (1967). Dr. sam an american tragedy. (pp. 11-177). Chicago: Henry RegneryCompany.

Forensic science guide: Timeline . (2011). Retrieved from http://www.forensicscience.org/resources/forensic-science-timeline/

Holmes Paul. (1961). The sheppard murder case. New York: David McKay Company, Inc

Saferstein Richard. (2011). Criminalistics: An introduction to forensic science. (tenth ed.). Upper Saddle River: Pearson.

Was Sheppard Innocent?

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