'Fugitive' Trial Begins Anew

After years of delays, the third trial in the Doctor Sam Sheppard case, the case which was, in part, the inspiration for The Fugitive television series and films, is under way Monday in Cleveland.

It could be a couple of weeks before the first witness testifies, since attorneys are expected to argue a series of motions.

Sheppard's son, Sam Reese Sheppard, has sued the state of Ohio - claiming his father was wrongfully imprisoned for his mother's 1954 beating death. The elder Sheppard was acquitted at a retrial, and died in 1970.

Arriving for the trial, Sheppard said he was glad to have his "day in court."

Prosecutors say his father is still the most likely suspect - and they'll try to prove that to a jury once testimony begins.

But unlike the first two Sheppard trials, the case won't be simply about an ultra-sensational murder or the rights of the media against those of a criminal defendant.

Instead, it will examine whether the criminal justice system is capable of terrible mistakes and whether, if it makes errors, it can be held accountable, said Sam Reese Sheppard, who was seven years old and fast asleep on the night in 1954 when his mother was murdered.

"The legal system has this image that it's fair, that it can do no wrong," said Sheppard, now 52. "At the same time, it has no mechanism to clear anybody's name for posterity. The police, the prosecutors, the politicians can literally destroy people's lives and walk away and say, 'We weren't wrong.'"

At trial, Sheppard's attorneys plan to argue it is more likely than not that the doctor was innocent. A win would send the case to the state Court of Claims, which could award him damages estimated at about $2 million as his father's heir.

William Mason, the state's lead attorney, says he's become convinced that the original prosecutors had the right man. But he agrees with Sheppard that, because of its long history and many twists, the case is a symbolic test of the American justice system.

"There may be some flaws in this system but it's still better than any other," Mason said. "The people before me in this case who presented evidence worked in good faith and to the utmost of their ability. They deserve to have their work looked at with an open eye."

Marilyn Sheppard was killed on the morning of Independence Day at the family home on Lake Erie.

Investigators immediately suspected her husband, who said he had fallen asleep downstairs the night before. Suspicion increased when he was later caught lying about an extramarital affair he had with a hospital lab technician.

The doctor stuck to an alibi that prosecutors still find incredible. He said he was awakened by his wife's cries and ran to help her, but was knocked out by a "bushy-haired intruder." He said he chased the assailant toward the lake but was knocked out again.

Sheppard was convicted in December 1954 and sentenced to life in prison. He won releae in 1964 after his defense attorney convinced a federal judge that Sheppard's right to a fair trial was trampled when the trial judge failed to shield the jury from negative news coverage.

In 1966, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a new trial, in which he was acquitted. Sheppard, however, died in 1970, broken financially and in spirit.

In this trial, lawyers for Sam Reese Sheppard will have to meet a tougher standard of proof than the traditional "not guilty" declaration at criminal trials.

They will likely try to do that by using DNA collected from blood evidence to exclude Sheppard from the bedroom where the killing took place.

Lead lawyer Terry Gilbert said he also is planning to implicate Richard Eberling as the killer. Eberling, a window washer for the Sheppards in 1954, died in 1998 while serving a life prison sentence for another murder.

Prosecutors will attempt to show that the beating inflicted on Mrs. Sheppard fits the profile of a slaying committed in passionate rage, not one committed by a psychotic rapist as Eberling will be portrayed.

To gather DNA evidence, Mason had the bodies of Mrs. Sheppard and the fetus she was carrying when she was killed exhumed Oct. 5 to prepare for the civil trial.

©2000, The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed