A Living, Walking Argument against the Death Penalty Sam Sheppard's Son Stages His Protest, Step by Step across 1,600 Miles

Article excerpt

OF ALL the characters in the O.J. Simpson tragedy, Sam Reese Sheppard thinks most about the children. "They have to be hurting and confused," he said of Sydney Simpson, 9, and her brother Justin, 6. "It's a devastating thing to have your universe change so profoundly and so suddenly."

Sheppard knows. He was 7 when his aunt awakened him early on the morning of July 4, 1954, and whisked him out of his suburban Cleveland home - past policemen in the hallway, past his father sitting bruised and stunned in the den, past news photographers snapping pictures of the little boy still clad in his pajamas.

Upstairs, his mother, Marilyn, 31 and four months pregnant, lay bludgeoned to death. His father, Sam Holmes Sheppard, 30, a handsome, successful surgeon whose father and two brothers were also doctors, would soon be arrested, charged and convicted of the crime. The prosecution tried to get the death penalty, but the jury sentenced him to life.

His trial - considered the "trial of the century" then, - drew intense media coverage, and the story inspired the TV series "The Fugitive."

Dr. Sam - as he became known in the press - spent 10 years in prison before a young, unknown Boston lawyer, F. Lee Bailey, took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. The court's decision in Dr. Sam's favor made legal history. He was the first American whose murder conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court on the grounds that "massive, pervasive and prejudicial publicity" had deprived him of a fair trial.

With Bailey's help, Dr. Sam won acquittal at a second trial in 1966. However, he couldn't shake the picture drawn of him - murderer - and died a broken man four years later. His son, now 47, shunned publicity for many years, working quietly as a dental hygienist in Boston, trying to deal with the demons of his past, working to stay "sane and reasonably humane."

Now he's put himself back in the limelight, making a 1,600-mile walk from Plymouth, Mass., to New Orleans to protest the death penalty.

Sheppard has a special perspective on this issue - its impact on children. Again and again in an interview when he went through Philadelphia recently, Sheppard, a soft-spoken, intense, nervous man with thinning brown hair, made this point: The children both of murder victims and of murderers or accused murderers can become damaged and dysfunctional. Executions only make things worse for the children and, he believes, for society.

He knows, he says. "Murder and execution almost destroyed my life."

Before that July 4, Sheppard's childhood had been "idyllic in many senses," he said. His parents, childhood sweethearts, were attractive and active and loved him. His father was successful professionally. His mother was independent and athletic - played golf and waterskied. They had a large home on a lake. And he was soon to have a sibling (a brother, the autopsy would show).

His parents got along well with each other, so far as young Sheppard could tell. Later, he would learn that his father had an affair with a woman who worked at the hospital owned by the Sheppards, in part because his mother had so much difficulty during his birth that she had "shut down sexually," he said. Sheppard said his mother knew about the affair, accepted it, but didn't like it. It had ended when the other woman moved away.

The night of July 3, several other couples had dinner at the Sheppards' house, and his parents were going to host a holiday picnic the next day. Sheppard said he was asleep and heard nothing during the night when his mother was murdered.

Dr. Sam told authorities that he'd dozed off on the couch downstairs and was awakened by his wife's moans. He dashed upstairs and was struck by what he recognized only as a "white form." Regaining his senses and discovering his wife brutally murdered with 27 deep head gashes, he rushed downstairs, saw and pursued a tall bushy-haired stranger to the shore of the lake. …