Good movies often start with a real life story, and in the saga of Dr. Sam Sheppard Hollywood had plenty of good material with which to work. Sheppard was sentenced to life in prison for the bludgeoning murder of his wife. He claimed that, during the early morning hours of July 4, 1954, he was in his home sleeping on a downstairs daybed when he awoke to his wife’s screams. He ran to her aid and was attacked by what he described as a bushy-haired man and was knocked out. When he came to he chased the man outside, fought him again, and was again knocked out. When he awoke once more, the intruder was gone and his wife was dead, having been severely beaten and apparently sexually assaulted.
He told this story to the police and they searched for the bushy-haired suspect, but eventually decided their perp was the good doctor himself. This wasn’t just because he was the husband, and his marriage was unhappy. Police investigators are very much like statisticians. Certain types of cases share certain traits, and the more traits a particular case shares with a certain category of cases, the more probable a certain conclusion begins to seem. An example: an actual home invader will nearly always immobilize the gravest threat first, meaning the man of the house; but in a staged domestic murder the intruder nearly always, somehow, overlooks the man of the house, leading to a heroic rescue attempt that fails. Sometimes the rescuer may have injuries, but they are, somehow, never life-threatening. Another example: in a staged domestic murder the husband will often remove clothing from the victim to imply that the motive was sexual assault by an intruder; but the rape is never consummated.
The list goes on. Suffice it to say, to the cops Mrs. Sheppard’s killing seemed like a textbook staged domestic homicide, and police proceeded based on that assumption. At a trial later that year a jury agreed, and Dr. Sheppard was sent up for life. But ten years into his sentence—after a long and difficult campaign by his family, his lawyers, and various advocates in the press—Sheppard was granted a new trial due to massive publicity surrounding the first that may have tainted the original jury pool. When he was retried the next year—with none other than a young F. Lee Bailey acting as his defense lawyer—he was acquitted of his wife’s murder on the basis of reasonable doubt.
But the new verdict did not restore Sheppard’s name to his satisfaction. He continued to protest that, not only was there a reasonable doubt he had committed the crime, but that he was completely innocent and the real murderer was still free. When Sheppard died in 1970 his family continued efforts to completely clear his name, and in 2002 even resorted to conducting DNA tests on the exhumed corpses of Sheppard, his wife, and her unborn fetus. Results: inconclusive. And police never found Sheppard’s bushy-haired man.
Today, Sheppard’s innocence or guilt remains a hot topic in the Ohio town where he lived. And it probably always will be, if only because people there are reminded of the case every time a certain television series or film appears on the local cable. That series is still remembered fondly by baby boomers, and the film resulted in an Academy Award for one of its actors. If by now you’ve guessed that both were called The Fugitive, you’re right. As far as whether the real Dr. Sam Sheppard was as innocent in real life as Harrison Ford was in the film, we’ll never know.