Murder’s Living Victims

When murder is committed, not all its victims are killed.

Surviving victims of a murder are those family members who are forever impacted by the intrusion of violence into their lives.  The psychological stress of such a sudden and violent loss is long lasting.  The horror is made worse by the loss of dignity in death for their loved one and by the invasion of family privacy by the news-hungry media. Too often, a family’s private tragedy is turned into a public soap opera.

Murder’s living victims also include family members of the person accused of the crime.  Relatives of the accused, whether guilty or innocent, are condemned by the public due to their common name.  Complete strangers treat them as if they were involved in the crime by mere association. These victims also suffer at the hands of news people and the witch-hunting public. They are subjected to cruel actions perpetrated by the sick of our society:  mailboxes are filled with hate mail; crank callers snarl over the telephone at all hours of the day and night; dead animals are left on their doorsteps; blood is smeared on their front doors.  And over-zealous media people surround their homes and camp out on their lawns for days at a time, barraging family members with rude questions and sticking microphones in their faces the minute they leave the refuge of their homes.  Here too, the psychological impacts cut deep, and the scars can remain for a lifetime.

Once a family’s private lives are exposed, usually through personal tragedy, to the public eye, they are no longer seen as individuals “just like you and me.” They become unwilling celebrities and are treated like public property. As the infamy grows, the public no longer identifies with these people as one of their own. They never grasp the fact that such a tragedy could happen to their own family at any time! Their mutual vulnerability is completely lost as the newly premiered tragedy and its characters are removed from real life and plunged into the category of entertainment.  People no longer need to examine their own behavior when they can be more easily entertained by watching someone else squirm under the public microscope, judged by complete strangers who are fed incomplete and erroneous “facts” through television news and daily newspapers.

familyIn July 1954 the Sheppard family was completely naive concerning the criminal justice system. They believed what all of us are taught:  that a man is considered innocent until proven guilty beyond all reasonable doubt.  They believed that criminal investigations were carried out in an objective manner, where suspects were named only after all evidence had been considered and where truth was the primary objective. They believed that the authorities would help them find who had murdered Marilyn.

When Cleveland Police Detectives Schottke and Gareau — on the afternoon of July 4th 1954 before a thorough investigation even had been initiated — accused Sam Sheppard of murdering his wife, the family didn’t know what to do.  Sam’s brothers and father called their long-time family lawyer, Arthur Petersilge.  Petersilge explained that his expertise was in corporate law and advised them to call his colleague, William J. Corrigan. The Sheppards, immersed in the practice of medicine their entire lives, had never heard of Corrigan. But they needed help, so they met with him that evening in the Bay View Hospital dining room.

In retrospect, the family did the only thing possible given their circumstances and their complete lack of experience with the criminal justice system.  Sam had been accused of murder by Cleveland Police detectives, so his family consulted a capable lawyer in response to that accusation. None of them were sophisticated in matters of crime investigation, so they were unable to ignore that early accusation and merely to assume it was a commonly used police tactic.

Unfortunately (ironic but true) the lawyer the family hired was one of the foremost criminal lawyers in the Cleveland area.  Many people, including some with the coroner’s investigative team, insist to this day: “We knew Sam Sheppard was guilty as soon as the family hired William J. Corrigan on the day of the murder.”

Did Our Society “Authorize” this Murder?

indexReading Carol Lee Flinders‘ book, At the Root of This Longing, is like being hit with a bolt of lightening called “Truth.” She writes with profound insight about violence perpetrated against females throughout history, culminating with the murder of Polly Klaas – a 12-year-old girl who lived in Flinders’ home town of Petaluma, California. Polly was abducted from her bedroom at knife point and callously murdered by a man named Richard Allen Davis in 1993. The passages that hit me the hardest follow (the bold-face emphasis is mine):

“I had kept such a silence for some time, and the effort had cost me dearly. Polly Klaas’s death was a real watershed, because I simply could not look at it, as I once might have, in isolation. Its resemblance to the only two other violent deaths that had ever touched my life was just not to be denied. The truth that forced itself upon me now involved a connection that I’d been close to making for some time but had resisted. It was that the men who deal out violence upon women and children — the rapists, the kidnappers, the molesters, the pornographers — are the unacknowledged but systematically groomed ‘enforcers’ of a system of values and priorities that it seemed to me inaccurate to identify as anything but patriarchy.”

Flinders goes on to explain that her husband Tim, who teaches fifth- and sixth-grade kids in a school located near Polly’s school, reached a similarly disturbing conclusion.

“One morning as he stood before his class trying to talk about galaxies and black holes, the hum of twelve-year-old girls all around, he went absolutely blank. For a moment all he could hear was a voice inside: It could have been one of these girls, one of my own students.

“That first insight set off a kind of chain reaction that he would describe later in his journal: ‘ When her body was found, and we learned what had happened, and I felt the devastation in the faces of my girl students, the voice got more insistent: she was one of my students. What happened to Polly that night, it was clear, had happened to them all. They would never be the same again.’

“But his grasp of things enlarged still more: ‘During the week after Polly’s body was found, and details concerning her alleged kidnapper and murderer came into focus, I realized that he  [Richard Allan Davis] was one of my own, too. I wasn’t prepared for this. . .’

“Tim experienced his connection with Davis in two different ways. As a teacher, he knew firsthand that ‘Richard Allen Davis is sitting right now in fifth-grade classrooms all across the country, alienated, abused, angry, helpless, with little sense of right and wrong, and with nothing to lose.’  Teachers see these kids, they know what direction they’re headed, and they know what it would take to redirect them — know in fact, that in many cases it wouldn’t take that much. They know of such kids, and know how poorly our educational system is equipped to intervene.

“But the connection was not just that of a teacher to a student; as an adult male, Tim also knew ‘that Davis was on a continuum with every other man in this culture.’  The utter contempt for women that had allowed him to destroy a young girl was abnormal only in degree. Like me, Tim had been reluctant to read this crime as an expression of patriarchy; we’d all rather have classed it with earthquakes, meteor showers, bolts of lightening . . . We’d rather have demonized the act and distanced it from everything familiar. But then he saw a quotation attributed to Polly’s alleged kidnapper, describing a violent assault on a woman Davis had abducted several years earlier: ‘We both got something out of it’

“This is the timeless, terrible rationalization Tim recognized, of men who rape women: the great lie that justifies not just the serial rapist but the college boy, as well, who just decides to ‘push things along.’  Try as we might to place Davis outside the norms of human behavior, he is not the utter aberration we would like to believe. ‘He is part of a male culture,’ Tim wrote, ‘that bolstered his feelings, however bent they might have been, however distorted or self-serving or even irrational. At the center of that culture, driving it, is the understanding that sex is domination and that women want it to be. And whenever any man tells a lurid joke or rents a pornographic video or brags about last night’s conquest, we’ve done our little bit to perpetuate it.'”


How does Flinders’ insight tie to the murder of Mrs. Marilyn Sheppard?   Evidence strongly suggests that Marilyn was murdered by an “enforcer of patriarchy.”  She was murdered by a man who believed that she encouraged and “wanted” his advances; and when she refused, biting and fighting him off with every ounce of her being — he killed her.

Boys who grow up in homes where they witness their fathers or other men using using violence against women, tend to repeat that pattern of behavior in their own lives. Compounding the problem, such boys — who often have been abused themselves — see male domination over women given tacit approval from our society.  They see it every day in movies, on television, in advertisements, video games and in their own homes. They grow up believing it is their right, as males, to dominate women and do whatever they please to get whatever they want.

These boys desperately need help!  Teachers and other adults who sense what is happening can intervene and make a difference.  If just one responsible adult will take action to counsel and care about abused and alienated boys (and girls), lives can be saved!