THE WRONG MAN
 

Review by Steve Weinberg 

Cleveland loyalists are almost certain to be offended by "The Wrong Man," which details 47 years of areawide corruption, incompetence,
indifference, willful blindness, class clashes and professional disagreements. The villains are police, forensic scientists, prosecutors, jurors, judges, journalists, physicians and a significant segment of the general citizenry. The offense taken is quite likely to be all the more stinging because the author until recently was one of their own - James Neff, who grew up in Cleveland, lived in Cleveland with his wife and family and worked at The Plain Dealer for 10 years. (Earlier this year, Neff left Ohio for Seattle.) 

Finally, the offense taken might be especially hurtful because Neff's book about one of the most renowned murder cases in U.S. history is completely persuasive. It's a painstakingly researched, compellingly written true- crime masterpiece. Any holes in Neff's case were not evident to me. Marilyn Sheppard, pregnant and the mother of a 7-year-old son, turned up bludgeoned to death in her Bay Village home on July 4, 1954. 

At first, it made sense for everybody to suspect her physician-husband, Sam. After all, his story seemed suspect: He said he had been sleeping during the pre-dawn attack, in a different room from his wife but seemingly close enough to have been awakened by a struggle. He had blood on his pants. Although in many ways a doting husband and father, the handsome, athletic physician was a ladies' man. He and Marilyn had argued about extramarital affairs. 

The murder investigation was flawed from the start. Bay Village police, lacking experience with homicides, failed to secure the crime scene, thus allowing physical evidence to become  contaminated as Sheppard's family and friends bustled around the house and yard. Cuyahoga County Coroner Dr. Samuel Gerber arrived within hours. His experience with homicides helped bring order out of chaos, but Gerber's near-immediate belief that Sam was guilty skewed just about everything he did or said. 

Like most Cleveland-area residents, Neff knew about Sheppard's December 1954 conviction, and his long-futile appeals from prison. Neff had heard about the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that led to a new trial for Sam in 1966, his acquittal, and the downward spiral of Sam's personal life. Sheppard died at age 46 in 1970. The continuing belief in the popular literature was that Sheppard had been freed on a technicality, and had indeed killed his wife. 

But there was a great deal Neff did not know about the case. In fact, Neff says, "Nearly everything I thought I knew about the case would turn out to be wrong." In 1989, Richard Eberling had been convicted of murdering an elderly Cuyahoga County woman named Ethel May Durkin. Durkin had trusted the charming middle-aged Eberling, who had become a fixture in Cleveland-area society. Few knew that before the 1984 murder of Durkin, Eberling had committed petty crimes much of his life. In 1954, while employed part-time at the home of Marilyn and Sam Sheppard, Eberling had stolen Marilyn's ring. Several investigators working the Marilyn Sheppard murder had briefly considered Eberling a suspect, but eventually dismissed that thought. 

Neff knew the tenuous Eberling-Sheppard connection. He wanted to understand Eberling better, so he requested a prison interview. After that interview, Neff believed Eberling was hiding a secret. So Neff pulled together everything about the murder from the public record, then began the arduous work of locating missing police reports, court records, lawyers' correspondence and people who might shed light on the truth. 

Part Three of Neff's book explains how his investigation unfolded, and how he concluded that Eberling murdered Marilyn Sheppard.
For nine years, Neff stayed in touch with the imprisoned Eberling. In July 1998, Neff and Eberling talked yet again. During the in-person interview, Eberling "took himself back to 1954," Neff relates. 

"He described himself as snapping to alertness and finding himself in the Sheppards' blood-splashed bedroom. He saw a crimson mess everywhere. He was horrified. My God, I had never seen anything like it,' he said. I got out of there.' I asked a follow-up question but Eberling wouldn't answer. Catching himself, he wouldn't talk about it anymore. It turned out to be as close to a confession as I could get. Richard Eberling died before I could return."

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Steve Weinberg is a writer in Columbia, Mo.  He is currently leading a nationwide study of prosecutorial misconduct, and how it sometimes leads to wrongful convictions.

 
 
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