Who Killed Marilyn?
The Sam Sheppard Case
In every decade of the twentieth century, there was one sensational murder trial that riveted public attention and at the time was called “the trial of the century.”
More than 40 years before the O.J. Simpson trial there was the Dr. Sam Sheppard murder case.
The victim at its centre was Marilyn Sheppard, the doctor’s wife, and the crime itself was so heinous and shocking, combining so perfectly extra-marital sex and violence, that it seized the country’s imagination and became an international media sensation. The trial was so polarizing it nearly tore apart the small community of Bay Village, Ohio, where the murder was committed, and its eventual verdict was so controversial that the appeals went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The repercussions of its conduct ultimately changed how juries and press-coverage of trials were handled in America, and the case itself was so compelling that it was thought to inspire the television show The Fugitive, as well as a movie, a docu-drama, a NOVA documentary, and numerous books.
At the same time, the case contained seeds of not only the dawning sexual revolution’s ecstatic explorations and moral hazards, but also the conflicts and ambivalences inherent in the nascent feminist movement: the competing roles women faced as professionals, spouses, and mothers in the second half of the twentieth century, seismic shifts in the changing expectations of both men and women that were already reverberating in movies like Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. Yet in spite of competing verdicts in three separate trials over the course of nearly fifty years, the Dr. Sam Sheppard murder case remains unsolved at worst, unsatisfactorily resolved at best. More immediately, to peer into it is to gaze on the darkest places of conjugal intimacy, to wonder at the limits and saving possibilities of matrimony, to question assumptions about a man’s capacity for fidelity as well as a woman’s tolerance of its lack, to ponder the degree to which, if at all, people are capable of change.