Justice demands a new trial

Published September 2, 2007

In reviewing a murder conviction for which there now exists profound evidence of innocence, Polk State Attorney Jerry Hill seems remarkably detached. Confronted with a disturbingly detailed account of how his office may have prosecuted the wrong man for the 1987 murder of Michelle Schofield, Hill turned to the very prosecutor whose work was in question.

"I asked him if there was anything in the article that he wasn't aware of, that was new to him, and he said no," Hill said. "I dare say that you take any homicide that is 18 years old and evaluate it today, and there will be things that weren't known."

That's it? Ask the prosecutor whether he erred, and then shrug your shoulders when he says he didn't? Leave it to a defense attorney to try to sort out the truth?

The case of Leo Schofield demands considerably more of our justice system. He has spent nearly 19 years in prison after being convicted of murdering his wife, but, as Times staffers Meg Laughlin and Don Morris revealed in a sobering investigative report last Sunday, a mountain of evidence points to another man.

- Fingerprints found in the victim's car were never identified at trial. Now we know they belong to Jeremy Scott, who has a history of violence, a conviction for murder and who lived within 2 miles of where the body was found.

- Hill's chief prosecutor dismissed the value of the fingerprints, saying Scott would have stolen the victim's jewelry. But in two other murders for which Scott was charged, Laughlin found that he left fingerprints and jewelry in both cases. He was convicted for one of them.

- The prosecutor's chief witness has changed her story. The woman, who lived in the same trailer park, claimed to have seen Schofield carry his wife's body to his car. But her husband told Laughlin: "No way (she) could've seen and heard from that little bathroom window what she said she heard." She in turn changed her story when asked by Laughlin. The woman has spent time in mental institutions for symptoms of delusions.

- Law enforcement versions of witness statements don't match what the witnesses told Laughlin. One Polk detective testified at trial that he knew of no other cases where women had been similarly stabbed, though at the time three unsolved murders fit the profile.

Schofield, who had no prior criminal record, has maintained he was innocent since the day he was arrested, and he rejected a plea deal before trial. His new attorney, Richard Bartmon, has asked Polk Circuit Judge Dick Prince to grant a new trial. The fingerprint evidence alone justifies it. The recanted and false testimony make it imperative.

Bartmon knows, though, that new trial requests are rarely granted after so much time has passed. That's why it is especially disappointing that Hill, who has a statewide reputation as a fair prosecutor, is refusing to consider the possibility that his office made a mistake.

In its formal response to the motion for a new trial, Hill's office argues that the original defense attorney failed to exercise "due diligence" in pursuing the identity of the fingerprints - a job that is supposed to belong to law enforcement. Worse, in this case, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement never completed its processing of all the evidence, and hairs found in the car have since been destroyed.

Hill may be right that the defense attorney at trial missed multiple chances to build a better case for Schofield. But the prosecution is supposed to get the right guy, and it should be every bit as interested in the truth as the defense. At this point, most of the prosecution's case against Schofield has evaporated and fingerprints point in an entirely different direction. How can Hill just look the other way?