February 22, 2002 at 12:48 AM EST - Updated July 27 at 12:01 AM
By THOMAS J. SHEERAN, Associated Press Writer
CLEVELAND (AP) - An appeals court ruled Thursday against Dr. Sam Sheppard's estate in a wrongful imprisonment lawsuit filed in his celebrated 1954 murder case.
The right to sue the state for wrongful imprisonment ended with Sheppard's death in 1970, the 8th Ohio District Court of Appeals said in a unanimous three-judge ruling.
The court, in a decision written by Judge Colleen Conway Cooney, said the lawsuit should not have been allowed to go to trial.
"We find that the statute of limitations has expired on the estate's claim and that the claim for wrongful imprisonment abates upon the death of the individual who was allegedly wrongfully imprisoned," the court said.
Since the statute of limitations expired, the state's motion to dismiss the lawsuit should have been granted, the appeals court said.
The lawsuit was filed by Sheppard's son, Sam Reese Sheppard, of Oakland, Calif., who has worked for years to exonerate his father in his wife's 1954 killing.
Dr. Sheppard's conviction was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in 1964 that the original trial judge failed to shield jurors and witnesses from news stories in the widely reported case.
Sheppard was acquitted at a retrial in 1966 and died four years later. He always denied killing his wife and blamed an intruder.
The case is considered an inspiration for the TV series "The Fugitive," although the show's creator has denied that.
Sam Reese Sheppard (pictured, above) and Dr. Sheppard's legal team said 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.
During the trial of the wrongful imprisonment lawsuit in 2000, prosecutors portrayed Dr. Sheppard as an adulterous husband who killed his wife in a fit of rage.
Terry Gilbert, an attorney for the Sheppard estate, said the appeals court decision would be appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court to clarify the limits on suing the state for wrongful imprisonment.
"The state benefits if somebody dies" if the state cannot be sued after the death of a wrongfully imprisoned person, Gilbert said.
Cuyahoga County prosecutors who defended the state in the wrongful death lawsuit could not be reached for comment. A message was left at the prosecutor's office after regular business hours.
(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)