A Pulitzer Prize-winning author is taking up the cause of Leo Schofield Jr., who has spent the last 34 years of his life in prison for the 1987 stabbing death of his wife, whose body was found in a water-logged drainage ditch along State Road 33 in Lakeland.
After a three-day search by law enforcement, Schofield’s father had found the 18-year-old girl’s body beneath a piece of plywood after telling Polk County Sheriff’s detectives that an “inner force” or God had led him there, according to court testimony.
Michelle Schofield had been stabbed 26 times.
For all of those 34 years, Schofield has maintained his innocence, and now author Gilbert King is taking up his cause.
King is creating a series of podcasts titled “Bone Valley,” which he said will reveal evidence exonerating Schofield. Once ready, the podcast will appear on the website of Lava for Good, an organization that says it is “amplifying the voices of contemporary social justice champions and inspiring action towards a more informed, empathic, and just society.”
In it, King challenges the state’s circumstantial case against Schofield, 56, who is up for a possible parole next year, pending a review by the state Commission on Offender Review.
“How does a man spend over three decades behind bars when there are layers of evidence pointing to his innocence?” King said in a prepared statement about the podcast. “I hope this series answers that question, exposes how our court system got this case very wrong, and helps to point to the truth for Leo, as well as for Michelle.”
King won the Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction in 2013 for his book “Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys and the Dawn of a New America,” about four young Black men accused of raping a 17-year-old white woman in Lake County in July 1949. In 2019, seven years after the last of the Groveland Boys had died, the Florida Board of Executive Clemency voted to pardon them, and last year, Circuit Judge Heidi Davis in Lake County granted the state’s motion to posthumously exonerate each of them.
A news release about the podcast suggests that King has uncovered new evidence in the Schofield murder case, but doesn’t cite what that is. King couldn’t be reached for comment.
In 1989, then-23-year-old Schofield quietly cried in a Bartow courtroom after 12 jurors found him guilty of first-degree murder. Days later, he was sentenced to life imprisonment. During the trial, witnesses testified to conflict in the young couple’s marriage, and two fishermen testified to having seen two men and an orange Mazda hatchback, matching the one Schofield drove, during the predawn hours of Feb. 25, 1987, in the area where Michelle Schofield’s body later was found.
A neighbor in the Lakeland mobile home park where the couple lived told jurors she had heard an argument after the couple came home about 1 a.m. on Feb. 25, and she later saw Leo Schofield carry something heavy to the trunk of his car, as if he was carrying a child, according to court testimony.
A three-day search for the missing girl by friends and law enforcement had yielded nothing until Leo Schofield Sr. found her.
In his podcast, King talks to Schofield and Jeremy Scott of Lakeland, whose name surfaced in the Schofield case in 2004 after law enforcement analysts identified previously unknown fingerprints in Michelle Schofield’s abandoned car as Scott’s. Her car had been found along Interstate 4 the day after her husband had reported her missing, court records show.
In 2004, Polk County sheriff’s detectives found Scott in prison, where he was serving a life sentence without parole for an unrelated Lakeland murder. During an interview that year, detectives asked Scott why his fingerprints might have been in the abandoned car, and Scott responded by asking whether any stereo equipment was missing. He said he often combed I-4 at that time for opportunities to steal stereo equipment that he could sell. When the car was found, two stereo speakers and an equalizer were missing, according to court testimony.
In further talks with Scott, Assistant State Attorney John Aguero had offered him immunity from prosecution if he had killed Michelle Schofield, but Scott remained steadfast that he’d had no involvement in her death, court records show..
In 2009, Schofield’s lawyers sought a new trial on grounds of the fingerprint evidence, but their motion was denied.
Six years later, his lawyers sent a letter to Scott seeking any information that might aid Schofield’s case, according to court testimony. Scott contacted them 10 months later and confessed to fatally stabbing Michelle Schofield, but when the lawyers sent Scott an affidavit to sign bearing the details of his confession, he declined, court records show.
But Schofield’s lawyers returned to Bartow seeking a new trial based on the confession.
In it, Scott said he’d approached Michelle Schofield at a Lakeland convenience store and had asked her for a ride, then directed her to an isolated lake where he had killed her. But court records show that witnesses at the convenience store testified to seeing the woman drive away alone.
During an evidentiary hearing in 2017, Scott initially said he committed the murder, then recanted his confession under cross-examination. He said he was tired of being asked about it, and had hoped the confession would stop inquiries by lawyers and news reporters. He also testified that he had asked Schofield’s lawyers for $1,000 in exchange for his confession, and that he had confessed to having committed all the murders in Polk County in 1987 and 1988.
Circuit Judge J. Kevin Abdoney denied Schofield’s request for a new trial, ruling that Scott’s testimony was unreliable and unlikely to acquit Schofield at trial. The 2nd District Court of Appeal mirrored that assessment when denying Schofield’s appeal to Abdoney’s ruling, stating “Mr. Scott’s testimony at the evidentiary hearing was, to put it mildly, bizarre.”
In December 2020, the Florida Supreme Court declined to hear Schofield’s appeal. It was the latest in a series of denials the courts have handed Schofield since his 1989 conviction.
Chief Assistant State Attorney Jacob Orr said earlier this month that the State Attorney’s Office stands by its 1989 conviction in Schofield’s case.
“Over the many years since a jury convicted Schofield of murder, the case has been reviewed by multiple judges and by the appellate court multiple times,” he said, adding that the case remains closed. “At no time has any trial judge or appellate court found any evidence worthy of disturbing the jury’s verdict.”
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