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By MILAN SIMONICH
THE WRONG MAN by James Neff (Random House. $24.95)
Dr. Sam Sheppard was privileged, good-looking and arrogant. He had affairs by the dozen and flaunted them during a time when such behavior shocked people.
A hotshot osteopathic surgeon, Sheppard became a household name after his pretty, pregnant wife, Marilyn, was beaten to death in their suburban Cleveland home during the early-morning hours of July 4, 1954.
Almost a half-century later, the Sheppard case remains one of America's most enduring mysteries.
Did 30-year-old Dr. Sam explode in a rage and kill his wife after they argued over his sophomoric dalliances?
Or was the murderer, as Sheppard always claimed, a bushy-haired intruder who smashed Marilyn's face with a heavy weapon, then knocked out Dr. Sam when he awoke and tried to save her?
The Sheppard family has maintained that Dr. Sam was guilty of adultery but wrongfully convicted of murder. A half-dozen books published between 1961 and 1995 took the same position: Each of them argued that Sheppard was innocent of the killing.
The latest examination of the case, by longtime newspaperman James Neff, is a readable rehash of that theme.
Neff concludes that Marilyn Sheppard was murdered by the family's window washer, Richard Eberling. The same allegation was raised in the 1995 book "Mockery of Justice," by Sheppard's son, Sam Reese Sheppard, and Cynthia Cooper. Neff is able to make a stronger accusation because Eberling is dead now. But he does not break new ground, nor does he deliver on the sensational promise made by his publisher, Random House.
Neff, Random House crowed in publicity handouts, "shows conclusively that Sam Sheppard did not murder his wife and points to the man who did."
He shows no such thing. He merely offers an informed opinion that Sheppard was railroaded and that Eberling was the killer.
The best evidence in the case, a blood trail in the Sheppards' home that revealed the presence of a third person, was not unearthed by Neff. Police, the coroner and prosecutors all knew about it in 1954 but did not bother to investigate it. They argued at trial, inaccurately as it turned out, that the blood was Marilyn Sheppard's and that it had dripped from the weapon Dr. Sam used to kill her.
DNA testing in the 1990s proved that the blood was not Marilyn's. The tests, though not conclusive, pointed to Eberling as the source. Dr. Sam's supporters have long theorized that Marilyn bit her attacker, who left behind droplets of his own blood as he ran from the house.
Eberling volunteered to police way back in 1959 that he had cut himself on a window and bled in the Sheppard's home. He made this incriminating admission after he was caught stealing from the fashionable homes where he washed windows.
Though Neff's book lacks new information, it is notable for its bare-knuckles look at Dr. Sam, who died in 1970 as a broken alcoholic. Other writers have served as apologists for Sheppard, skimming over his flaws and rationalizing his womanizing. Neff exposes all of his warts.
He is just as hard on the police and press in Cleveland. Without doing any investigating, they concluded in one day that Sheppard was a murderer. Then they campaigned to convince a jury of the same thing.
In all likelihood, they were as wrong as they could be. Eberling, who died in prison in 1998 while serving time for the murder of another woman, probably killed Marilyn Sheppard. But it is fantasy to believe that Neff's book will sway anybody with a fixed opinion about the case.
The old guard will always vilify Dr. Sam and insist that he was guilty.
(For news and information about Pittsburgh visit http://www.post-gazette.com/. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)