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Trial Triggers Relative Reunion

Family man! Sam Reese Sheppard arrived in court Monday accompanied by relatives from both sides of his family, the first time the Sheppard and Reese bloodlines have stood united in the courtroom. "We're here to represent Marilyn and support Sam," said Marilyn's cousin, Melissa Reese Weigle. Two other cousins were in tow, along with aunt Dorothy Sheppard, the wife of Dr. Sam's brother Richard. Sheppard himself looked dapper in a dark blue suit, a deliberate departure from his all-black ensembles and part of a well-orchestrated PR effort to soften his image and promote the case. Sheppard chatted amiably with reporters in the courtroom, confiding details of his personal struggles and offering, "I look forward to getting to know Cleveland again." Supporters have struck a harsher tone on his website (samreesesheppard.org), which covers everything from the murder to other cases of "wrongful conviction." In a swipe at the local daily, the site charges The Plain Dealer with "repeating the unprofessional behavior of 1954" and promises: "For the benefit of Cleveland readers, we will post what we consider to be fair coverage of the trial." Still, no coverage can avoid the ugly character issues that will be raised over the next two months, and Sheppard sounded genuinely hopeful on Monday when he said, "Let's exorcise the demons of this case."

A rare look inside the ownership and operations of the local daily is on the stands this month courtesy of Columbia Journalism Review, which offers a glowing portrait of the Newhouse newspaper empire. The traditionally tight-lipped Newhouses are suddenly chatty about their newfound commitment to "editorial quality," and Plain Dealer Editor Doug Clifton is described as being "blissfully out of sorts" over his new job. Other news bits out of happyland include: a new $38 million PD headquarters building; a Monday business tab inside the paper, an idea that has been under discussion for some time; and a writing coach that Clifton has hired, apparently to improve the paper's "culture of mediocrity." Clifton's new goal: "A culture where good enough isn't good enough." Advertising jingles aside, the free-spending Clifton offers an interesting rationale for his decision to send PD fashion writers to cover the shows in Paris and Milan: "I don't know if it made sense, but we did it."

No one expects lucid behavior out of Congressman Jim Traficant, least of all when he's under investigation by the Justice Department. What's puzzling is how and why he inspires irrational thinking in otherwise sensible people like Congressman Steve LaTourette, who, over the weekend, defended Traficant as "one of the best members of the House of Representatives" -- an opinion shared by no one on Capitol Hill. LaTourette declined to back off his comments this week, criticizing the investigation as a politically motivated "fishing expedition." With Traficant facing a tight reelection race this year, LaTourette says, "The timing of this just smells bad to me." In fact, the timing was determined by Traficant aides Charles O'Nesti and George Alexander, who recently pleaded guilty to racketeering and corruption charges. As a former prosecutor, LaTourette knows very well what comes next. "Gimme a break," says one source familiar with the case. "After Chuck O'Nesti pleads guilty to being the bagman between mobsters and politicians, [U.S. attorneys] would be derelict in their duty if they didn't look at Traficant." Look for a new hairdresser for him while you're at it.

Cool cuts and hot tips to edge@clevescene.com.

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