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Thursday, May 28, 2020

10-08 The Fayetteville Observer

Execution foes speak out
By: Allison Williams

    Sam Reese Sheppard still fights to clear his father’s name, almost 50 years after Dr. Sam Sheppard was charged with the murder of his wife, Marilyn Sheppard.
    But he came to Fayetteville on Monday to talk about what he is not fight for – vengeance.  Sheppard is part of the “Journey of Hope” tour, which began a swing through North Carolina more than a week ago and will continue until this weekend’s National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty meeting in Raleigh.
    The speakers are from all parts of the country, but they share one thing in common: All had a relative who was murdered, yet they oppose the death penalty.
    On Monday, the speakers scattered around Fayetteville to churches, Fayetteville State University and radio stations.  Sheppard spoke to the Sandhills Dharma Group, people who are studying the Buddhist tradition of meditation.
    Sheppard is a Buddhist.  On Monday night, he told his story sitting on the floor, legs folded.
    Sheppard was a child when his mother was murdered.  He remembers waking up on July 4, 1954, to find a stranger in his room.  He was led out of the house on Lake Erie in his pajamas.  That, he said, was when his world fell apart.
    His father went to prison.  Children at school taunted him and said his father should fry.  Several relatives committed suicide.  Media attention was relentless.
    “I felt like I was from outer space,” Sheppard said Monday.  “My dad’s innocence gave me the endurance to carry on.”
    The Supreme Court overturned Dr. Sheppard’s conviction, ruling the trial judge failed to shield jurors and witnesses from the crush of negative media reports about him.  He was acquitted at retrial in 1966.  He died in 1970.
    But the media attention did not go away.  Even now, the name Dr. Sam Sheppard is familiar.  “The Fugitive” movie and television show are about a man wrongly convicted of murdering his wife who escapes and clears his name.
    Sam Reese Sheppard is still fighting his father’s wrongful conviction in court.
    For a long time, he avoided any attention.
    “I worked hard at putting my life together,” he said.  “But there always this huge past of mine.”
    He only stepped back into the spotlight after the first execution by lethal injection.
    “I knew I had to speak out,” he said.  “Too many people in my family had died.”
    He thinks it is unhealthy that death is viewed as the ultimate punishment and laughable that it is thought of as a comfort for victims.  So he joined the “Journey of Hope” and makes speeches around the country.
    George White helped start “Journey of Hope.”  While Sheppard spoke to the Sandhills Dharma, White spoke to a group at Fayetteville State.  Earlier he had given a talk to about 15 people at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church on Raeford Road.
    White’s wife, Charlene, was killed in 1985.
    White held his wife as she died, but he does not want to see her killer put to death.  Like Sheppard, he opposes the death penalty.  He said it is morally, socially and economically wrong.
    Last year, he spent 200 days away from his home in Kansas to deliver his message.
    “Taking a life is not an abstraction to me,” he said Monday at Holy Trinity.
    White and Sheppard suggest alternatives to the death penalty.  They believe offenders should serve life sentences and work in prison.  Money from their salaries would go to victims through assistance groups, counseling and educational scholarships.
    At first, White said he wanted the death penalty for the person who killed his wife.  But now, he said, “We say not in our names.”
    Dr. Sheppard’s case became national news.  But George White’s case only made headlines in Alabama.  On Monday, he told his story.
    In 1985, the Whites planned an evening out.  They were about to leave, when the phone rang.  A man needed help with a blown circuit and wanted to meet White at White’s store.  When the Whites opened the door of the store, a man was standing there, pointing a gun.  The couple did what the man said, but Charlene tripped.  White heard the shots again and again.
    He held her as she died.
    “I don’t remember if I said goodbye,” he said.
    Police charged him with Charlene’s murder.  He served two years and 103 days in an Alabama prison before his conviction was overturned.  Seven years after the shootings, the state dismissed the case.
    He said he wrestled with God, but God won.  Forgiveness, he said, is a way of life.  He referred to September’s terrorist attacks.
    “The nation has been plunged into a lot of darkness,” he said.  “There is a lot of pain.  There is a lot of outrage.  Those feelings are natural.  What do we do with those feeling makes the difference.”