Twenty-Five Stories

7 Why the Press used “all its editorial artillery” against Dr. Sam Sheppard

Louis B. Seltzer

On the morning of July 4, 1954, Mrs. Marilyn Reese Sheppard, a pretty Bay Village housewife, was found bludgeoned to death in her bedroom.

For mystery, for suspense, for painstaking putting together of fragmentary clues by the most scientific methods, the Sheppard murder, which was to become one of the country’s most famous in modern times, had within it all of the elements of the classic criminal case.

It had one other element, which set it apart from most murder cases of this type. That was the deliberate effort to prevent the law enforcement authorities from finding the killer. The case became both a murder and, in a very real sense, a roadblock against the law.

At the time Marilyn Reese Sheppard was brutally killed, only two other persons were present in the quiet lakefront home, settled among big trees a comfortable distance away from the roadway. One of these was Dr. Samuel H. Sheppard, her husband, a young, handsome, athletic osteopath, and, the other, the Sheppards’ sleeping son Chip, aged six.

Bay Village is a tightly knit community to the west of Cleveland. It is composed largely of young people who either have their own businesses, are fairly well established in the professions, or have a competence. It is a community of beautiful homes, peaceful and quiet, but socially vivacious. Families visit back and forth in the easy, relaxed, and buoyant way common to newly created small communities with a youthful flavor. They are very loyal to one another when any form of trouble occurs.

The family of Dr. Sam Sheppard owned a large osteopathic hospital in the village. His father and brothers operated it, with Sam Sheppard, of course, also on the staff.

It was to the Sheppard family’s hospital that Dr. Sam was taken by his family immediately after the murder of his wife was reported. The reason given for hospitalizing him was that an intruder — a bushy-haired man, as Dr. Sam described him — had injured his neck in the struggle the doctor reported had taken place in the house. Thus, the Sheppard family surrounded Dr. Sam.

The investigating authorities were blocked off. The Mayor of Bay Village was J. Spencer Houk, who owned the local butcher shop and was a close friend of Dr. Sam. They visited back and forth; they went on vacations together; they owned a boat together. Mayor Houk rejected the advice of Coroner Sam Gerber and the Cleveland Homicide Squad that Dr. Sam should be arrested.

Dr. Sam was fenced in by his family, his friends, and the public authorities in Bay Village. The protective wall had been put up quickly. It was almost impossible to penetrate it, and then only at the will of those who controlled the encirclement — and on their terms. The purpose seemed obvious — to hold the wall secure around Dr. Sam until public interest subsided, and the investigating authorities turned their attention elsewhere.

The newspapers began to lose interest — except one. The Press kept the Sheppard murder case in top position on Page 1. It kept steadily prying into the case, asking questions, trying to break through the wall around Dr. Sam.

On July 15, 11 days after Marilyn Reese Sheppard’s badly beaten body had been found in the bedroom of their home, I addressed a list of 11 questions to Dr. Sam and his lawyers — one of whom was a prominent criminal lawyer hired by the Sheppard family the very morning Marilyn’s body had been found.

Dr. Sam’s reply was published on July 17. The answers were noninformative and inconclusive. The situation was just as tight, just as completely roadblocked, just as walled in as before.

On July 20, with the investigation lagging, with the Coroner still fended off by the family and Bay Village friends and officials, The Press published on Page 1 an editorial. It took the upper quarter of the page, and the eight-column heading said: “Somebody Is Getting Away With Murder.”

It was a calculated risk — a hazard of the kind which I believed a newspaper sometimes in the interest of law and order and the community’s ultimate safety must take. I was convinced that a conspiracy existed to defeat the ends of justice, and that it would affect adversely the whole law-enforcement machinery of the County if it were permitted to succeed. It could establish a precedent that would destroy even-handed administration of justice.

Because I did not want anyone else on The Press staff to take the risk, I wrote the editorial myself. It may not have been a good editorial, but it was a hard-hitting editorial. It was intended to be. It read in part:

 

What’s the matter with the law enforcement authorities of Cuyahoga County?

Have they lost their sense of reason? — or, at least inexcusably, set aside the realization of what they are hired to do, and for whom they work?

If ever a murder case was studded with fumbling, halting, stupid, incooperative bungling — politeness to people whose place in this situation completely justified vigorous searching, prompt and effective police work — the Sheppard case has them all.

Was the murder of Mrs. Sheppard a polite matter?

Did the killer make a dutiful bow to the authorities and, then, proceed brutally to destroy the young childbearing wife?

Why all of this sham, hypocrisy, politeness, crisscrossing of pomp and protocol in this case?

Who is trying to deceive whom?

From the very beginning — from the first hour that the murder became known to the authorities by a telephone call from the husband to the Town Mayor — from that moment on, and including this, the case has been one of the worst in local crime history.

Of course, the trail is cold. Of course, the clues have been virtually erased by the killer. Of course, the whole thing is botched-up so badly that head or tail cannot be made of it.

In the background of this case are friendships, relationships, hired lawyers, a husband who ought to have been subjected instantly, to the same third-degree to which any other person, under similar circumstances is subjected, and a whole string of special and bewildering extra-privileged courtesies that should never be extended by authorities investigating a murder — the most serious and sickening crime of all.

The spectacle of a whole community watching a batch of law enforcement officials fumbling around, stumbling over one another, bowing and scraping in the presence of people they ought to be dealing with just as firmly as any other persons in any other crime — that spectacle is not only becoming a stench, but a serious threat to the dignity of law enforcement itself.

Coroner Sam Gerber was never more right than when yesterday he said that the killer must be laughing secretly at the whole spectacle — the spectacle of a community of a million and a half people brought to indignant frustration by Mrs. Sheppard’s killer in that white house out in Bay Village.

Why shouldn’t he chuckle? Why shouldn’t he cover up, shut up, conceal himself behind the circle of protecting people?

What’s the matter with us in Cuyahoga County? Who are we afraid of? Why do we have to kow-tow to a set of circumstances and people where a murder has been committed?

It’s time that somebody smashed into this situation and tore aside this restraining curtain of sham, politeness, and hypocrisy, and went at the business of solving a murder — and quit this nonsense of artificial politeness that has not been extended to any other murder case in generations.

 

The evening this editorial was published in The Press on Page 1, the Bay Village City Council met and voted to take the investigation away from their own police force and hand it over to the Cleveland Police Department’s Homicide Squad.

The next day, also on Page 1, The Press published an editorial headed: “Why No Inquest? Do It Now, Dr. Gerber.”

 

Why hasn’t County Coroner Sam Gerber called an inquest into the Sheppard murder case?

What restrains him?

Is the Sheppard case any different from the countless other murder mysteries where the Coroner has turned to this traditional method of investigation?

An inquest empowers use of subpoena.

It puts witnesses under oath.

It makes possible the examination of every possible witness, suspect, relative, record and papers available anywhere.

It puts the investigation itself into the record.

And — what’s most important of all — sometimes solves crimes.

What good reason is there now for Dr. Gerber to delay any longer the use of the inquest?

The murder of Marilyn Sheppard is a baffling crime.

Thus far, it appears to have stumped everybody.

It may never be solved.

But this community can never have a clear conscience, until every possible method is applied to its solution.

What, Coroner Gerber, is the answer to the question —

Why don’t you call an inquest into this murder?

 

A few hours after this editorial appeared on Page 1 of The Cleveland Press, Coroner Gerber ordered an inquest.

At the inquest, Dr. Sam insisted his married life had been a happy one. He denied an “affair” with a former Bay Village Hospital technician now living in California. The Press flew a reporter to Los Angeles with the police. The technician was brought back to Cleveland. She admitted her affair with Dr. Sam, and related talks she had with Dr. Sam about a possible marriage.

The wall still surrounded Dr. Sam. He had gone back to the family-operated hospital.

On July 30, The Cleveland Press published, again spread across the top of its first page, another editorial. This one was headed: “Quit Stalling — Bring Him In.” Once more I wrote it myself. It was my neck I was sticking out.

 

Maybe somebody in this town can remember a parallel for it. The Press can’t.

And not even the oldest police veterans can, either.

Everybody’s agreed that Sam Sheppard is the most unusual murder suspect ever seen around these parts.

Except for some superficial questioning during Coroner Sam Gerber’s inquest, he has been scot-free of any official grilling into the circumstances of his wife’s murder.

From the morning of July 4, when he reported his wife’s killing, to this moment, 26 days later, Sam Sheppard has not set foot in a police station.

He has been surrounded by an Iron Curtain of protection that makes Malenkov’s Russian concealment amateurish.

His family, his Bay Village friends — which include its officials — his lawyers, his hospital staff, have combined to make law enforcement in this County look silly.

The longer they can stall bringing Sam Sheppard to the police station the more surer it is he’ll never get there.

The longer they can string this whole affair out the surer it is that the public’s attention sooner, or later, will be diverted to something else, and then the heat will be off, the public interest gone, and the goose will hang high.

This man is a suspect in his wife’s murder. Nobody yet has found a solitary trace of the presence of anybody else in the Lake Road house the night or morning his wife was brutally beaten to death in her bedroom.

And yet, no murder suspect in the history of this County has been treated so tenderly, with such infinite solicitude for his emotions, with such fear of upsetting the young man.

Gentlemen of Bay Village, Cuyahoga County, and Cleveland, charged jointly with law enforcement –

This is murder. This is no parlor game. This is no time to permit anybody — no matter who he is — to outwit, stall, fake, or improvise devices to keep away from the police or from the questioning anybody in his right mind knows a murder suspect should be subjected to — at a police station.

The officials throw up their hands in horror at the thought of bringing Sam Sheppard to a police questioning for grilling. Why? Why is he any different than anybody else in any other murder case?

Why should the police officials be afraid of Bill Corrigan, his lawyer? Or anybody else, for that matter, when they are at their sworn business of solving a murder?

Certainly, Corrigan will act to protect Sam Sheppard’s rights. He should.

But the people of Cuyahoga County expect you, the law enforcement officials, to protect the people’s rights.

A murder has been committed. You know who the chief suspect is.

You have the obligation to question him — question him thoroughly and searchingly — from beginning to end, and not at his hospital, not at his home, not in some secluded spot out in the country.

But at Police Headquarters — just as you do every other person suspected in a murder case.

What the people of Cuyahoga County cannot understand, and The Press cannot understand, is why you are showing Sam Sheppard so much more consideration as a murder suspect than any other person who has ever before been suspected in a murder case.

Why?

 

That night Dr. Sam was arrested on a murder charge and taken to Police Headquarters.

The rest of the Sam Sheppard case is familiar. He was indicted by the grand jury, tried in a courtroom crowded with newspaper, radio, and television representatives from all over America, convicted of second degree murder, and sentenced to the Ohio Penitentiary, where he is now a prisoner.

The Cleveland Press was both applauded and criticized. It was criticized on the ground that The Press inflamed public opinion by its persistent and vigorous pounding away at the case. It was criticized by some who expressed the belief that the Sheppard case had been “tried” in the newspapers before it reached the courtroom.

The question confronting The Press, as a newspaper properly concerned about the whole structure of law enforcement in the community, was — Shall we permit a protective wall to shield a solution to this murder, by saying and doing nothing, or —

Shall we move in with all of our editorial artillery in an effort to bring the wall down, and make it possible for law enforcement authorities to act in their normal and accustomed way?

There were risks both ways. One represented a risk to the community. The other was a risk to The Press. We chose the risk to ourselves.

As Editor of The Press I would do the same thing over again under the same circumstances.

~This piece was originally published in “The Years Were Good: The Autobiography of Louis B. Seltzer.” It is used with permission. See https://tinyurl.com/CSULouisSeltzer.

 

Editor’s note: On Dec. 21, 1954, Sam Sheppard was found guilty of second degree murder in the death of his wife, Marilyn, and sentenced to life in prison, beginning a series of appeals that ended when the U.S. Supreme Court in 1966 overturned the verdict. Sheppard was retried and found not guilty on Nov. 16, 1966. The aggressive coverage by the media in the investigation and trail of Sheppard prompted a heated debate over the public’s right to know versus the right of a defendant to a fair trail unprejudiced by excessive publicity. In 1991, the City Club of Cleveland held a forum on the issue with reporter Doris O’Donnell and lawyer J. Michael Murry. (See: https://tinyurl.com/CityClubSheppard).