State Panel Considering Jury Issue In Sheppard Case

By M.R. KROPKO, Associated Press Writer

CLEVELAND (AP) - A judge erred by allowing a jury to decide a wrongful imprisonment trial on behalf of the late Dr. Sam Sheppard, attorneys for his estate are arguing.

All other wrongful imprisonment cases in Ohio have been decided by a judge, said Terry H. Gilbert, a lawyer for Sam Reese Sheppard, who has worked 12 years to exonerate his father in his wife's 1954 killing.

The jury issue is the key element of an appeal that was argued before the 8th Ohio District Court of Appeals last week, Gilbert said.

Assistant Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Reno Oradini Jr. said Friday that the appeal has no merit.

"A jury is allowed," he said.

Normally private citizens cannot sue the state. But Ohio lost that governmental immunity in 1986 concerning wrongful imprisonment cases, Oradini said. The state is treated the same as any defendant in a civil case and can request a jury.

Lawyers for Sheppard's estate objected when Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Ron Suster granted the request for a jury trial in 2000.

The case is likely to end up before the Ohio Supreme Court no matter how the appeals panel rules, Gilbert said Friday. The judges -- James Sweeney, Patricia Blackmon and Colleen Cooney -- gave no indication when they will issue a decision.

Sam Reese Sheppard, 54, of Oakland, Calif., has worked for 12 years to exonerate for his father, Dr. Sam Sheppard, who was found guilty of murder in his wife Marilyn's death July 4, 1954 at the family's suburban Cleveland home.

But his conviction was later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in 1964 the original trial judge failed to shield jurors and witnesses from news stories in the widely reported case.

Because of that ruling, judges today warn jurors to avoid media accounts of trials.

Sheppard was acquitted at a retrial in 1966 and died four years later. He always denied killing his wife, blaming an intruder. The case is considered an inspiration for the TV series "The Fugitive," although the show's creator has denied that.

The doctor's son and his legal team believe the real killer was a window washer who worked for the Sheppard family in 1954. He died in prison while serving a life sentence for another murder.

In the wrongful imprisonment trial, Cuyahoga County Prosecutor William Mason and his assistants portrayed Dr. Sheppard as an adulterous husband who killed his wife in a fit of rage.

To win the case, and potentially large money award from Ohio, Sam Reese Sheppard (pictured, above) had to obtain a verdict that Dr. Sheppard was innocent by the greater weight of the evidence -- the legal standard in Ohio for such civil cases.

After more than three months, the jury decided against the Sheppard estate.

Gilbert also said a transcript of Dr. Sheppard's 1954 trial -- which the Supreme Court later ruled had been tainted -- had no place in the wrongful imprisonment trial.

Sam Reese Sheppard "is not obsessed with this at all," Gilbert said. "I just think he'd like to see it through, for better or worse."

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)