December 7, 2015

Cleveland-Marshall Law Library digitizes historic Sheppard murder trial documents for public viewing

The Cleveland-Marshall Law Library received a donation from the county prosecutor that contained the evidence and files from the three historic Sheppard cases — State of Ohio v. Sheppard, Sheppard v. Maxwell and his son’s wrongful imprisonment suit, Sam Reese Sheppard v. The State of Ohio, in 2000.
As part of the process of making these documents available to the public, the law library staff has been working tirelessly over the past two years to digitize everything pertaining to the case, including evidence, court and county documents and newspaper clippings.


The original 1954 Sheppard murder case captivated newspapers when Bay Village resident Marilyn Sheppard was found bludgeoned to death in her home.


Her husband, Sam Sheppard, a prominent doctor in the Cleveland area, was tried and convicted of her murder during a media frenzy, with reporters seated only a few feet away from where Sheppard and his lawyer were. It was a move that allowed for little to no confidentiality in the courtroom.


This conviction was later overturned by the Supreme Court, ruling that Sheppard had not received a fair and impartial trial.


Sean Kennedy and Lisa Smilnak, law library associates, worked with the rest of the library staff to bring the extensive project to life.


“It was a huge case when it happened, it was all over the country before Internet,” Smilnak said. “The legal ramifications are still valid today.”


The Sheppard case — the O.J. Simpson trial of its time, according to Kennedy — is still a landmark today because it was one of the first cases to use DNA evidence as well as setting the precedent for how media are handled during sensitive trials.


“In 1966, when he was released by unfair media treatment it was actually the Supreme Court [that decided] and it was the first time the Supreme Court had ruled that someone didn’t get a fair trial via the media influence,” Kennedy added. “That’s a case, Sheppard v. Maxwell [from] 1964 that’s still cited today in terms of people getting an unfair trial. Plus, it’s an unsolved murder, technically.”


The process for digitizing the collection included scanning every document that was given and uploading them to the computers for public viewing.


“There were boxes of files that had to be inventoried before we could really scan [because] if we just tried to jump in without an organizational process it would have been a disaster,” Simlak said. “So we created this humongous spreadsheet that contains information about all of the items. There are about 11,000 individual items, some multi-page, so it’s really about 70,000 pages worth.”


There were redactions in some of the information donated pertaining to living family members or private matters that did not impact the case, according to Kennedy.


These items included personal letters between family members or subjective rumors about the family that held no legal or academic merit.


Cleveland-Marshall Law Library received the donation from CM Law alumnus and county prosecutor on the original murder trial, Bill Mason, after beating out The Smithsonian and Case Western Reserve University, among others. While there are no other collections set to be digitized to such an extent now, the staff says it feels that it has gained experience with the Sheppard case and may be picked as the final home for other important contributions.


“[Now] we feel like maybe if we did get another big project we could tackle it and do it in a more efficient way now that we’ve taken on this humongous [project,],” Smilnak said.


The collection is set to open for public viewing by spring semester. For more information about the Sheppard case, visit www.scholarship.csuohio.edu/sheppard or email sheppard.feedback@law.csuohio.edu.



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