Hearing denied for convicted murderer

Fingerprint evidence pointing to another suspect isn't enough, a judge rules.

By Meg Laughlin, Times Staff Writer
Published March 1, 2008

A Polk County circuit judge has ruled that a Lakeland man convicted of murder in 1989 cannot have a hearing to look at new evidence, despite recent fingerprint identification pointing to an alternate suspect, in prison for a different murder.

The judge said that witness testimony was convincing enough to trump new questions raised by the fingerprints.

The ruling was signed Wednesday, exactly 21 years since Feb. 27, 1987, when the stabbed body of Michelle Schofield, 18, was found in a Lakeland canal.

Two years later, her husband Leo Schofield was convicted of the murder, based mainly on the testimony of neighbor Alice Scott, who said she saw Schofield carry something to his car that looked like "a sleeping child wrapped in something."

Though another neighbor, who talked to Scott right after Scott saw Schofield carrying something, questioned whether Scott had the right night when Michelle disappeared, the judge agreed Wednesday with the government's argument that Scott was a reliable witness.

Four years ago, using a newer, sophisticated system, detectives identified fingerprints taken from Michelle's car, which was used to transport her body. The prints belonged to Jeremy Scott, who had a long rap sheet for violent crimes, including a murder.

He lived less than 2 miles from the canal where Michelle Schofield's body was found, and mutual friends said they knew each other.

In his decision this week, Circuit Judge Mark Carpanini concluded: "While the fingerprint evidence conceivably could have had some effect on ... Defendant's guilt, it does not rise to the level of so weakening the case ... that there is a reasonable probability that the evidence would produce an acquittal on retrial."

Schofield's appellate attorney, Richard Bartmon, said he was "still trying to make sense of the ruling," which said the original defense attorney should have tried "to discover the owner of the fingerprints" at the time of trial in 1989.

Back then, an advanced fingerprinting ID system did not exist in Polk County, and it was impossible to identify the fingerprints without a suspect. Schofield was the only suspect, and the prints did not match his.

"If we'd had a way to identify the owner of those prints at the time of trial, we would have done it and not left it up to the defense," said John Aguero, the prosecutor at the original trial.

Aguero said this week's ruling surprised him. He had expected the recent fingerprint identification of the alternate suspect would get Schofield a hearing to look at new evidence.

"But if Schofield got that hearing and then a new trial, I don't think he would have prevailed in the end," said Aguero.

Schofield, however, will not get the chance to see what the new evidence would have meant unless an appeal to the 2nd District Court of Appeal is successful. His attorney will file in the next month.

When Schofield's wife, Crissie, visits him in prison on Sunday, she will inform him of the judge's decision. Leo Schofield, who has always maintained his innocence, is serving a life sentence.

"He had such hope for a thorough, honest examination of what the new evidence meant," she said. "I can't even think about the letdown."

Meg Laughlin can be reached at mlaughlin@sptimes.com or 727 893-8068.