Media Ethics with a Life at Stake: The Sam Sheppard Murder Trial

Marah Eakin, Ohio University

In 1966, the United States Supreme Court ruled “The massive, pervasive and prejudicial publicity attending petitioner’s prosecution prevented him from receiving a fair trial,”freeing Dr. Sam Sheppard from prison and condemning the media for their handling of a trial 12 years previous.

The 1954 murder of Marilyn Sheppard (see Appendix 1 for summary of case information) has achieved tremendous amounts of notoriety since the decision was handed down. It’s been called a “Roman Holiday” for the media. The case, with all its intriguing details, made a very sellable story for newspapers, and eventually turned into a veritable “feeding frenzy” of information.

The real question is “did the media go too far?” Did their treatment of the case infringe Sheppard’s right to a free trial? Did their desire to get scoops and sales outweigh their journalistic ethics? To this writer, the members of the media covering the trial checked their ethical knowledge at the door, yielding to public outcry and possibly ruining a man’s life.

The Sheppard trial is a prime example of media mishandling of a criminal investigation. Paul Holmes, author of “The Sheppard Murder Case,” said the manhunt and trial were “the gaudiest, most publicized, and most controversial murder trial in the United States in modern times.”

  1. Criteria for a media-friendly criminal investigation

  2. A murder in an idyllic upper middle class suburb. A prominent family. A beautiful socialite wife, who just happens to be barely pregnant. Potential police botchery. Illicit love.

To some journalists, the above combine for a coherent and captivating story. Scandal sells newspapers.

The Sheppard trial was one of the earliest trials that the entire nation followed – both in the papers and on the rapidly evolving television set. Networks and big name reporters covered the story. What could be better than a gruesome murder in a small town?

However, we must question the ethical background that these decisions are based on. Is it better for the American people to have their appetites for gossip quenched or to have a fair criminal justice system? By basing their stories on gossip, hearsay and editorializing, the Cleveland media dropped the Rawls veil of ignorance in lieu of condemnation before conviction.

The media in the Sheppard case profited from the misfortune of others, known commonly as a “Roman Holiday.” By making assumptions for the sake of moving a story along and making new headlines destroys the credibility and objectivity of the press.

  1. Editorializing the Headlines

When The Cleveland Press, one of the largest Cleveland newspapers, ran front-page banner headlines screaming “Quit Stalling – Bring him in,”the journalists declared their bias – clearly against Sam Sheppard.

In fact, The Cleveland Press was clearly the most opinionated and unfair newspaper involved in the entire trial. Running articles with unusually large headlines and enormous photos drew attention to the trial. In fact, they ran some of the most scandalous and scathing editorials – some of which had direct influence on the outcome of the trial. At what point does a front page editorial lose its status as opinion and become seen by readers as fact, based on placement alone?

The day the “Quit Stalling” editorial ran, Sheppard was arrested and placed in jail. Such editorials created such a public frenzy that a murderer could be free in their midst that the pressure on law enforcement agents would be so great that, regardless of evidence, it is possible that police would feel obligated to seize Sheppard.

When the trial would later commence, jurors weren’t sequestered, nor was the trial moved to a more neutral location where the publicity wouldn’t have been so dynamic. In fact, the possibility of a completely objective jury pool is almost laughable. It can almost be assumed that the popular media coverage, including some of these editorials had to have been at least viewed, if not absorbed, by jurors.

At the same time, it’s obvious that the media was not entirely at fault. The independence of the legal system must be taken into account, including the assumption that the jurors were not swayed by the press or by public sentiment.

  1. Jury fashion and Cameras in the Courtroom

As evidenced by the June 6, 1966, Supreme Court Sheppard v. Maxwell decision, Sam Sheppard was not given a fair trial.

The jurors were thrust into the spotlight even before the trial began. In fact, The Cleveland Press published names of all the people in the jury pool. Later they would do an article on the dapper fashions of the female jurors, “bringing color to the courtroom,” including pictures of the ladies.

According to Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark, “Despite his awareness of the excessive pretrial publicity, the trial judge failed to take effective measures against the massive publicity which continued throughout the trial or to take adequate steps to control the conduct of the trial.”For example, one end of the press table was less than three feet from the jury box. The proximity of the journalists to the trial’s participants eliminated privacy between Sheppard and his lawyers, as well.

In today’s age of immediate news coverage, spurred on by America’s fascination with the O.J. Simpson trial, it’s hard to imagine a case with such a carnival atmosphere. Still, it can be argued that perhaps the legal system has learned from its’ mistakes – In the Simpson trial, the accidental glimpse of a juror by a TV camera was practically grounds for a mistrial. In contrast, in 1954, the Sheppard jurors ate daily at the same restaurant with almost all principal participants in the case.

Following the realization that Sheppard had an affair with Susan Hayes, a fact he admitted, the media began to let their imaginations run rampant. The Cleveland Press began fabricating stories and speculating about Sheppard’s other extra-marital activities.

“As the trial progressed, the newspapers summarized and interpreted the evidence, devoting particular attention to the material that incriminated Sheppard, and often drew unwarranted inferences from testimony such as he had sexual relations with numerous women; that his slain wife had characterized him as a ‘Jekyll-Hyde;’?and that a woman convict claimed Sheppard to be the father of her illegitimate child. At one point, a front-page picture of Mrs. Sheppard’s blood-stained pillow was published after being ‘doctored’ to show more clearly an alleged imprint of a surgical instrument.”

It is unquestionably wrong, however, for the press to become active participants in a court case, regardless of public demand for up-to-date and “close to the action” coverage. When the media interferes with the legal system, it does harm to every American who may go to court, as well as itself. It’s unconstitutional, and it’s unethical. When the media crosses lines and decides innocence or guilt, it becomes not simply a purveyor of information, but rather a jury instead.

  1. Gripping the Nation

  2. Coverage of the Sheppard trial was front-page news across most of America for the six months following the murder.

  3. Despite all the ethical dilemmas surrounding the Sheppard trial, many members of the media still believe they were doing nothing but their job. Editor of The Cleveland Press at the time, Louis Seltzer wrote in his memoirs “The question confronting The Press as a newspaper? was? Shall we permit a protective wall to shield a solution to this murder, by saying and doing nothing, or ? Shall we move in with all of our editorial artillery in an effort to bring the wall down, and make it possible for law enforcement authorities to act in their normal and accustomed way?? As Editor of the Press, I would do the same thing over again under the same circumstances.”

Unquestionably, newspaper circulation increased during the time of the trial, and news wasn’t hard to come by. But the real question lies in the ethics of such comprehensive coverage. Not only were the papers covering the facts, but the Cleveland papers also ran features about not only juror fashion, but romance between the defense attorney’s son and a reporter for a Chicago newspaper, visiting reporters at the trial, and various other famous murder cases in relation to the Sheppard trial. Criminal trials are, in fact, interesting, but at what point must the line be drawn between news and drivel?

  1. Conclusion

The immersion style reporting that the media did, namely the Cleveland media, clearly compromised the rights of Sam Sheppard. Whether he was guilty or not is irrelevant, really. The fact remains that fault lies both on the media’s drive for sensational stories and the legal system’s reluctance to impose restraints.

In a twenty-nine-page ruling written by Justice Tom Clark, the Supreme Court ruled that Sheppard had been deprived of a fair trial “because of the trial judge’s failure to protect Sheppard sufficiently from the massive, pervasive, and prejudicial publicity that attended his prosecution.” The Supreme Court’s landmark ruling was the first decision to recognize that the press could prevent a defendant from receiving a fair trial consistent with the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

By the 1990s the opinion had been cited nearly two thousand times by other courts. “It became a precedent for such famous cases as those of O.J. Simpson, William Kennedy Smith and the officers accused of beating Rodney King, and it came up whenever prejudicial publicity threatened to taint the right to a fair trial.”

As journalists, we must question whether what we report is fair. The entire newspaper is responsible – for the life of a person, for the reputation of a reporter, for the vitality of a business, and for public perception of a profession. Even if news is factual, to what extent must we report it?

While coverage of a trial, acceptably extensive if the trial is important, is acceptable, responsible journalists cannot allow themselves to be driven by their gut reaction and popular hunger for gossip – they must think through their decisions and report only what is ethical and just. Cases like the Sheppard trial allow journalists to learn from past mistakes to create a better reputation for the future.

Sheppard v. Maxwell, 384 US 333, 335

Holmes, Paul. (1961) The Sheppard Murder Case. New York. David McKay Company, Incorporated.

Sanders, Keith Page (1964). The Cleveland Press Coverage of the Sheppard Murder Case in Relation to Sensational News Treatment. Unpublished masters thesis.

Sam Sheppard: The Supreme Court Speaks. (1998). Retrieved March 11, 2001 from the World Wide Web:

McKnight, Keith. (1996, July 2). Sheppard goes to trial during a different legal era. Akron Beacon Journal.

Thomas Clark, “Sheppard v. Maxwell, 384 U.S. 333 (1966),” <>. 1994-1999.

Seltzer, Louis B. (1956). The Years Were Good. Cleveland: The World Publishing Company.

F. Lee Bailey with Harvey Anderson, The Defense Never Rests, (New York: Stein and Day Publishers, 1971), 81.

Janice Shuetz and Kathryn Holmes Snedaker, Communication and Litigation: Case Studies of Famous Trials, (Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988), 177.

Cynthia L. Cooper and Sam Reese Sheppard, Mockery of Justice, (New York: Penguin Books Inc., 1997), 157-158.

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