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Spatters and Lies: Technologies of Truth in the Sam Sheppard Case, 1954-1965

Starts: 16:00 06 February 2018
Ends: 17:30 06 February 2018
What is it: Seminar
Organiser: School of Law
Who is it for: University staff, Adults, Alumni, Current University students, General public
Speaker: Professor Ian Burney

CCCJ Seminar Programme 2017/18

(in collaboration with Methods@Manchester)

In this talk I focus 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 centred 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 will suggest 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 centre stage. This twist, I will suggest, allows us to reflect on the complex relationship

between forensic knowledge and the broader context in which it is produced and deployed.


Professor Ian Burney

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