New DNA evidence taken from the exhumed body of Dr. Sam Sheppard provides the last piece of evidence that he was wrongfully convicted of murdering his wife in a trial that transfixed America more than four decades ago, and suggests strongly that the killer really was a “bushy-haired” intruder, as Sheppard claimed, a lawyer for the Sheppard family said Wednesday.
The murder entered popular culture by forming the basis for the television program “The Fugitive” and the movie of the same name.
Tissue samples taken from Sheppard’s body, which was exhumed at court order last fall, show “he is excluded as a donor” of the blood found at the murder scene, Terry Gilbert, the lawyer who represents Sheppard’s son, Sam Reese Sheppard, said Wednesday.
That conclusion, and earlier DNA testing of the blood completed in February 1997 that showed the blood was not from Marilyn Sheppard, leaves the bushy-haired stranger whom the doctor claims he struggled with on the night of the murder as the only source, Gilbert said.
And that 1997 testing pointed to a third person: Richard Eberling, a former window washer at the Sheppards’ lakeside house who first came under suspicion in 1959, when a ring of Marilyn Sheppard’s was found in his home. Eberling is in prison for the 1984 murder of an elderly widow.
The blood evidence includes specks from a trail of blood leading from the bedroom where Marilyn Sheppard was assaulted and killed in July 1954, and a smear found on her husband’s pants.
In the trial, prosecutors argued that the blood came from a knife that Sheppard had used to kill his wife, even though no knife was ever found.
Gilbert said that the new DNA testing also revealed that a recently rediscovered sample of blood, taken from a large spot on a closet door in the bedroom only a foot from where Marilyn Sheppard was killed, did not match either Sam or Marilyn Sheppard. And it, too, pointed to Eberling, Gilbert said.
“Richard Eberling cannot be excluded as a suspect,” Gilbert said, using the precise language of DNA analysis. “The bottom line is, Eberling shows up everywhere with his DNA: on the closet wall in the bedroom, on the blood trail on the stairs, on the porch and on Sheppard’s trousers.”
The DNA testing was performed by Dr. Mohammad Tahir, a leading expert and supervisor of DNA and serology at the Indianapolis-Marion County Forensic Services Agency.
Tahir said Eberling’s DNA type was found in semen on two slides of vaginal smears taken from Marilyn Sheppard. Her body was found in a position suggesting she had been raped. The prosecution never disclosed at the doctor’s trial that his wife had been sexually assaulted.
Wednesday’s developments will have no immediate effect on a lawsuit for wrongful imprisonment brought by Sheppard’s son, which is awaiting a ruling by the Ohio Supreme Court, Gilbert said. The Cuyahoga County prosecutor, Stephanie Tubbs Jones, has asked the high court to block a decision by a county judge to allow Sam Reese Sheppard’s suit to go forward, on the grounds that the statute of limitations for wrongful imprisonment has expired.
If the Supreme Court rules in his favor, Sheppard said, “I think today’s news will be a rather profound statement.” Sheppard must win a declaration of innocence for his father from a court before he can collect damages, which could run as much as $2 million.
His father served 10 years in prison before the U.S. Supreme Court, ruling that the trial was tainted by excessive press attention and a carnival-like atmosphere in the courtroom, ordered a retrial. In 1966 he was tried again and acquitted. He died in 1970.
Despite the passage of time, the case continues to provoke intense feelings in Cleveland. Sheppard and Gilbert said they believe the prosecutor has tried to block their suit because some of the law-enforcement officials involved in the original trial are still influential.
One justice on the state Supreme Court, for example, Francis Sweeney, was an assistant prosecutor at the time of the second trial. He has declined to recuse himself from hearing the case.
Last year, Jones’ first assistant prosecutor, Carmen Marino, said he had come to conclude: “I don’t think Sam Sheppard killed his wife. There should have been more of an investigation at the time.”
But no other suspect was ever investigated.