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“The Wrong Man” by James Neff (Random House, 432 pages, $25.95) Those inside the criminal justice system are almost certain to be offended by “The Wrong Man,” which details 47 years of areawide corruption, incompetence, indifference, willful blindness, hatred based on economic class, and professional disagreements. Leading villains include the 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, James Neff, is married to a prosecutor. Yet Neff’s book about one of the most renowned murder cases in U.S. history is completely persuasive, a painstakingly researched, compellingly written true-crime masterpiece. When Marilyn Sheppard, mother of a seven-year-old son and pregnant with a second child, turned up bludgeoned to death in her Bay Village, Ohio, mansion on July 4, 1954, it made sense for everybody to suspect her physician husband, Sam. After all, his story seemed suspect: He said he had slept through 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 a doting husband and father in many ways, the handsome, athletic physician was a ladies’ man and had been known to argue with his wife about his affairs. The investigation of the murder began badly: 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 Samuel Gerber arrived within hours. His experience with homicides helped bring order out of chaos. But Gerber’s near-immediate belief that a fellow physician was the guilty party skewed just about everything he did and said. When experienced Cleveland police officers arrived soon after Gerber, his premature theory of the crime affected their outlooks, too. An investigation meant to nail an already designated suspect through narrowly interpreted evidence often plays out differently than an open-minded inquiry that follows the evidence to whomever it leads. Like perhaps millions of other folks, Neff knew about Sheppard’s December 1954 conviction, his long-futile appeals from prison (assisted in large part by his brothers Richard and Stephen, fellow physicians who worked with Sam at the family-owned hospital), the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that led to a new trial for Sam in 1966, his acquittal, the downward spiral of Sam’s personal life, his death at age 46 in 1970, the continuing belief in the popular literature that Sheppard had been freed on a technicality, that indeed he murdered Marilyn. That belief seemed unshakable, despite entire books such as the 1961 work by Chicago Tribune reporter Paul Holmes pointing toward Sheppard’s innocence. But there was a great deal Neff did not know about the case. In fact, Neff says, “[n]early everything I thought I knew about the case would turn out to be wrong.” Neff began investigating the Sheppard murder 12 years ago through the side door. Earlier 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 survived childhood abuse and neglect to become a fixture in Cleveland-area society. Yet few knew that before the 1984 murder of Durkin, Eberling had committed petty crimes much of his life. In 1954, for example, 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 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 surviving humans who could perhaps shed light on the truth. The final third of “The Wrong Man,” which runs 77 pages plus copious source notes, explains how his investigation unfolded, how he satisfied himself of Sam Sheppard’s innocence, how he concluded that Eberling had 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 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.” Steve Weinberg, a freelance journalist in Columbia, Mo., is currently leading a nationwide study of prosecutorial misconduct, and how it sometimes results in wrongful convictions.

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