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New book looks into 1954 'heartbreaking' yet 'transformative' murder

By Norwalk Reflector staff • Jul 10, 2019 at 12:06 PM

POUGHKEEPSIE, N.Y. — It was a killing that gripped the world’s attention not just when it occurred but for many years after. In fact, as late as the year 2000, judicial decisions were still being made in cases relating to Marilyn Sheppard’s 1954 murder.

July 4 marked the 65th anniversary of the brutal attack that took the young mother’s life in the Bay Village lakefront home she shared with her husband Sam and 7-year-old son, “Chip.” The facts of the case, its trial and retrial are events that permanently changed key aspects of American jurisprudence and spawned numerous books, documentaries and the fictional “Fugitive” movie and television series.

It is also given new attention in the “The United States Of Ohio,” by David E. Rohr. The author, an Ohio native, provides the subject with 11 pages of examination in a chapter entitled “Killing Marilyn and Sam.” The book, which carries the subtitle “One American State and Its Impact On the Other 49,” looks at the Sheppard case because, as Rohr said, “it was not just a heartbreaking story but a transformative one.”

“It literally changed the nature of such cases and their reporting. It also illustrates just one of the many ways that Ohio and Ohioans have impacted the rest of the nation.” 

“There were two fundamental rights at odds with one another. On one hand we had the rights of the accused to be presumed innocent until a jury makes a finding of guilt. And on the other, we have the rights of a free press,” Rohr said.

These two were in profound conflict as Cleveland’s major newspapers of the time aggressively reported and editorialized on the story. The now defunct Cleveland Press was particularly strident in its assertion that Sam Sheppard was guilty of his wife’s murder, running headlines like “State Prepares Charges Against Bay Murderer” and “Getting Away With Murder.”

Gag orders, jury sequestering, changes of venue are all developments that have come to be employed in murder cases. Police and other investigating authorities have dramatically changed the way they protect crime scenes and gather evidence. Judges routinely dismiss or alter verdicts when the rights of the accused have been compromised by unfair or accusatory press coverage.

Rohr leaves it to the reader to form conclusions about the guilt or innocence of Sam Sheppard, but admits his son, Sam Reese Sheppard (“Chip” as a boy), makes a compelling case for his father’s exoneration while also advancing the name of a likely murderer.

The case remains officially unsolved. Rohr said he also believes the case also shortened the life of the elder Sam Sheppard who had been a well-known Bay Village doctor, but descended into alcoholism and an early death at 46 in 1970.

Along with the chapter on the Sheppards, the book takes a sweeping look at Ohio’s significance to the rest of the country. It is available from its publisher, Ohio State University Press, virtually every online retailer and select Barnes & Noble locations.

Rohr, who lives, works and teaches in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., grew up in Toledo. He spent much of his early career working in various parts of Ohio including Columbus, Akron and Cleveland. More information is available at ohiostatepress.org or unitedstatesofohio.com.

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