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
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
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
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. …