It was a tragic, awful ending to the first chapter of a story which remains unfinished, now 65 years later.
Have a look at that headline. Imagine that news on your doorstep. It was a tragic, awful ending to the first chapter of a story which remains unfinished, now 65 years later.
Picture in your mind, if you will, that your loved one has been facing the death penalty for the murder of his wife, who is also your loved one. Several days prior to Christmas Day, 1954, the Sheppard family learned that Dr. Sheppard would not get a death sentence, but he was wrongly convicted and sent to prison. Just a few weeks later, Dr. Sheppard’s mother would take her own life.
Sam Reese Sheppard was seven years old on July 4th, 1954 when his mother was murdered and his father was accused of killing her. Young Sam and his cousins had been fairly well inoculated from the chaos and the nearly daily front page headlines, but Sam knew his mother had “gone to be with the angels,” and that his father was gone too. Sam was in the house when his grandmother killed herself. He heard the gunshot.
Marilyn Reese Sheppard, Sam’s mom, was murdered on July 4th, 1954. Excluding Sundays, when the Cleveland Press did not publish, the Sheppard family endured more than 125 days of often salacious front page headlines, often presuming the worst. Up until Christmas Day, there were only 35 days in the prior six months when there was nothing about the case on the front page. December 23rd and 24th, the days after the verdict was announced, the story was on page 2. Then, it was pretty much silent. Until the final headlines of January 7th and 8th.
For most of us, we have no idea what it must be like to have the worst days of your life lived out in the media. What must it be like to be incarcerated, or to be the loved one of an incarcerated person on death row or otherwise, or to be the family member of a murder victim? Sam Reese Sheppard is one of many people we work with who share their “voices of experience on the death penalty” to help those of us who have not lived it more fully understand the tragedy and aftermath of murder, how the government makes mistakes, and how capital punishment does not serve the needs of murder victim families.
On behalf of Sam Reese Sheppard, an early member of our Advisory Board, Death Penalty Action has been honored to coordinate and manage TheSheppardExperience1954. This daily chronicle of the front page coverage of the murder of Marilyn Sheppard and the wrongful conviction of Dr. Sam Sheppard has opened our eyes a bit more. We are pleased to have helped create this record so that it can help open the eyes of many others.
The Sheppard Experience 1954 project has been sharing the headline of the day on each corresponding day from July 5, 1954 to January 8, 1955. For Sam, it was often the first time he had ever seen many of these headlines. It doesn’t get any easier. Our hearts go out to Sam and to everyone whose family has endured and continues to endure such losses.
You can learn more about the as-yet unsolved Sheppard murder case, and take this journey through the daily front page headlines from the start by visiting The Sheppard Experience — 1954 on the web at http://thesheppardexperience1954.org. The images are also on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SheppardExp1954 and you can “Like/Follow” and share the Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/SheppardExperience1954/.
Abe & Scott, Co-Directors
PS: The relevance of this case to the headlines of today are surprising and real. In many ways, not much has changed. And today, the film Just Mercy opens in theaters nationwide. That film portrays a case now decades old. But, the feelings are similar, and real, with the added issue of the pervasive racism of our legal system.
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