A Crime To Remember: Why Sam Sheppard Will Always Be “The Fugitive”

It was July 4, 1954, and Sam and Marilyn Sheppard seemed to have it all. He was a dreamy doctor and she looked like a movie star. The couple was living a picturesque life in Bay Village, Ohio.

But when Dr. Sheppard became the prime suspect in his wife’s brutal murder, the story turned into a decades-long legal drama. The initial trial and subsequent retrial were hot tabloid news. In the end, the Sheppard case brought notoriety to defense attorney F. Lee Bailey and spawned several Hollywood hits. Below we look at the Sheppard legacy that captured the nation’s attention for years:

David Janssen in The Fugitive Photo: Wikimedia Commons

David Janssen in The Fugitive Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Hollywood’s Obsession With The Sheppard Case 

The infamous trial went on to inspire the 1960s television series The Fugitive on ABC. Mirroring the Sheppard case, David Janssen starred as Richard Kimble, a doctor who is falsely convicted of killing his wife and sentenced to the death penalty. En route to be executed, Kimble is able to escape and begins his cross-country search for the real killer. The series went on to be nominated for five Emmy Awards and won the Emmy for Outstanding Dramatic series in 1966.

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Despite the many parallels between the series and the Sheppard case, creator Roy Huggins denied the connection. Leading many to question Huggins’ dismissal, the show’s music supervisor was married to a woman who had dated Sheppard and even testified in the trial. The connection between Sheppard and Kimble seems rock-solid to many fans and television critics.

Decades after the case, the Sheppard trial continued to inspire Hollywood adaptations. In 1993, Harrison Ford starred in the action thriller The Fugitive, which again focuses on a wrongly accused husband and his hunt for justice.

Sheppard and Bailey during the retrial Photo: Associated Press

Sheppard and Bailey during the retrial Photo: Associated Press

F. Lee Bailey Earns Notoriety 

Following Sheppard’s January 7, 1955, sentence of life in prison, his attorney, William Corrigan, spent six years making appeals. Following years of rejected appeals, Corrigan passed away and F. Lee Bailey took over as chief counsel.

By 1966, Bailey was able to get the U.S. Supreme Court to hear Sheppard v. Maxwell. And on June 6 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the murder conviction by an 8-to-1 vote. The justices noted that the trial was a “carnival atmosphere” and thus denied Sheppard his Fourteenth Amendment rights to due process.

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F. Lee Bailey rose to national prominence during the retrial and eventual acquittal. Widely deemed as crucial to the defense strategy, Sheppard did not take the stand and Bailey delivered a  powerful closing argument, dismissing the prosecution’s case as “ten pounds of hogwash in a five-pound bag.” 

Bailey’s impressive career started with Sheppard and went on to include the “Boston Strangler” case, Dr. Carl A. Coppolino, Ernst Medina, Patty Hearst and O.J. Simpson.

Sheppard and his 3rd wife, Colleen Photo: Associated Press

Sheppard and his 3rd wife, Colleen Photo: Associated Press/ Gene Herrick

“Killer” Sam Sheppard’s Wrestling Career 

Sheppard remarried several times after Marilyn’s death, including a third marriage to Colleen Strickland, the daughter of professional wrestler George Strickland. George and Sam began training and wrestling together. To the delight of the media, 45-year-old Dr. Sheppard embarked on a wrestling career and was even nicknamed “Killer” Sam Sheppard. No joke.

Sheppard died several months after making his wrestling debut, but not before wrestling in 40 matches. Sheppard even developed a new wrestling submission hold, the “mandible claw,” thanks to his in-depth knowledge of anatomy.

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Despite DNA evidence, many people still want to believe that Sam Sheppard killed his wife. We may never know what really happened that night.

Watch new episodes of A Crime to Remember Tuesdays at 10/9c on Investigation Discovery.

Main Photo: YouTube, Associated Press, Wikimedia Commons