Spatters and Lies: Contrasting Forensic Cultures in the Trials of Sam Sheppard, 1954-66

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This article focuses on the contrasting forensic regimes involved in the celebrated 1955 trial and 1965 re-trial of Dr Sam Sheppard for the murder of his wife Marilyn. The first regime cohered around the Cleveland Coroner Dr Sam Gerber, who took charge of the scene investigation, conducted a highly publicized inquest, and provided sensational trial testimony which included his claim to have recognized the pattern of a ‘surgical instrument’ impressed on Marilyn’s bloody pillow. A second regime began to develop in the weeks following Sheppard’s conviction and centered on the eminent Berkeley criminologist Paul Leland Kirk. Kirk provided an alternative, but equally striking, reading of the blood evidence: where Gerber saw qualitative, holistic shapes, Kirk deployed a pioneering (and since celebrated) exercise in spatial reasoning based on the emerging discipline of blood spatter analysis.

The acquittal of Sheppard at his 1965 retrial could be seen as an instance of modern forensic technique as a catalyst for justice – with analytical and objective methods overcoming judgements based on mere common sense and local interest. I argue that this simple story obscures the more interesting – and surprising – route taken by those seeking to establish Sheppard’s innocence in the decade following his incarceration. In this campaign it was the polygraph rather than spatter analysis, and the detective writer Erle Stanley Gardner and the flamboyant defence attorney F Lee Bailey rather than Kirk, that took center stage. This twist enables critical reflection on the inherently complex relationship between forensic knowledge and the broader context in which it is produced and deployed.

Bibliographical metadata

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationGlobal Forensic Cultures
Subtitle of host publicationMaking Fact and Justice in the Modern Era
EditorsIan Burney, Christopher Hamlin
Place of PublicationBaltimore and London
PublisherJohns Hopkins University Press
Number of pages37
ISBN (Print)9781421427492
Publication statusPublished - 21 May 2019

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