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A state commission denied immediate parole Wednesday to Leo Schofield Jr., who has spent 34 years in prison for the brutal 1987 stabbing death of his wife, Michelle, in Lakeland. Instead, the three-member commission ordered him to spend at least another year in prison, at which time the panel will reconsider parole.
Schofield, 56, will be transferred from the Hardee Correctional Institution near Wauchula to the Everglades Re-Entry Center in Miami where he will spend 12 months participating in a transition program for inmates nearing release.
It’s a step Commissioner David Wyant, retired deputy chief of Bartow Police Department, said is necessary.
“My concern is to make sure that he is ready to go,” he said Wednesday. Wyant had proposed an 18-month extension, but the three commissioners compromised on one year.
Schofield was sentenced to life in prison with a mandatory 25-year term after a Polk County jury found him guilty of first-degree murder in March 1989. Prosecutors were seeking the death penalty, but the 10 jurors recommended a life sentence. (There were no alternates. One juror was sent home for health reasons and the other because of a family emergency.)
Schofield has maintained his innocence throughout his years in prison, just as he did from the witness stand in his 1989 trial.
Schofield was 21, newly married and an aspiring rock musician when his wife disappeared. Michelle, 18, was last seen driving home from her waitressing job in Lakeland. Schofield reported her missing and testified that he had been with his father that night.
The young bride’s body was discovered three days later by Schofield’s father, who said an “inner force” had led him to a water-filled canal along State Road 33 where she was submerged beneath a piece of plywood. She had been stabbed 26 times in her neck, back and chest.
Schofield’s case has generated widespread support after a 12-part podcast, “Bone Valley,” was released last year championing his innocence. Dozens of supporters crowded into Wednesday’s hearing room as the commission considered his parole.
In their brief discussion, commissioners cited Schofield’s clean disciplinary record while in custody as a significant factor in assessing parole. Schofield, like other inmates up for parole, wasn’t brought to Tallahassee for the hearing.
In arguing for his release Wednesday, Scott Cupp, a former judge now representing Schofield, read a letter Schofield had written, in which he said he had turned down multiple plea agreements that would have guaranteed his release nearly a decade ago. But those agreements would have required some admission of guilt, which he said he wasn’t willing to do.
“I’m forced to maintain my innocence because I am actually innocent,” he wrote.
Cupp read another letter – this one from Jessie Saum, Michelle Schofield’s younger brother, who said he has researched the case and supports granting parole.
“It’s likely you have got the wrong guy,” he stated in the letter.
Another brother, Ricky Saum, spoke to commissioners over the phone, saying Schofield is distorting the truth about the case.
“It’s not the truth,” he said. “It’s their truth, and that’s OK.” But Ricky Saum said he opposes any parole.
“He tortured my sister,” Ricky Saum said Wedneday. “He mentally tortured her. He violently tortured her. …At the end of the day, he should stay in prison for the rest of his life. Period.”
Jacob Orr, chief assistant state attorney for the Bartow-based 10th Judicial Circuit, in arguing for Schofield to remain in custody, told the commission that multiple courts have reviewed the evidence and testimony in this case, including Jeremy Scott’s 2016 confession, and have rejected each of Schofield’s motions for a new trial based on evidence.
Several courts have ruled that Scott’s testimony wasn’t credible.
In a September 2020 ruling – the most recent in Schofield’s case – a three-judge panel for the state’s Second District Court of Appeal found Scott’s confession and testimony during a 2017 evidentiary hearing to be, “to put it mildly, bizarre.”
“Mr. Scott did ultimately confess to the murder of Ms. Schofield,” the ruling states, “but then he also confessed to murdering every other person who was murdered in Polk County between 1987 and 1988. He admitted that he told Mr. Schofield’s defense team that he would confess to Ms. Schofield’s murder for $1,000.”
Scott didn’t become a factor in the case until 2004, when previously unidentified fingerprints in Michelle Schofield’s abandoned car were linked to him. They’re the same fingerprints defense lawyer Jack Edmund used in the 1989 trial in an effort to create reasonable doubt in the minds of the 12 jurors.
When Scott’s name finally surfaced, investigators met with him in prison, where he was serving a life sentence for an unrelated murder, and they asked him what he knew about the abandoned car, according to court testimony. They’ve testified that they made no mention of the murder at that time. Scott asked them if the stereo was missing, and said he routinely would break into abandoned cars at that time to steal stereo equipment.
When the car was found, evidence showed, two speakers and an amplifier had been taken, according to court records. Since that time, every court that has reviewed his testimony has found his explanation to be credible.
For more than a decade, Scott denied having stabbed Michelle Schofield and dumping her body in the canal, according to court records. But recently, Scott has become more adamant in asserting his guilt, and he’s become pivotal in the podcast called “Bone Valley,” authored by Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter and author Gilbert King.
The podcast is credited with generating a breadth of interest in Schofield’s case. As of Wednesday, more than 31,000 people have signed a petition through Change.org seeking to transfer Schofield’s case from the State Attorney’s Office to another court circuit with a conviction integrity unit, providing an independent review of its merits.
But prosecutors have held firm that Schofield’s murder conviction should stand, and they point to Scott’s statements to support their position. Over time, Scott has provided different explanations regarding his involvement in the murder, they said, including where the stabbing took place. Initially he said he stabbed her in the front seat of her car after asking her for a ride. Later, he said he dragged her out of the car before killing her.
In previous appellate hearings, Scott has said that Assistant State Attorney John Aguero, who prosecuted Schofield, had offered him immunity if he had killed Michelle and would confess to the stabbing. Aguero, who testified in appellate hearings that he did make that offer, said Scott told him he didn’t need immunity because he hadn’t committed the murder.
Now, in the podcast, Scott has denied that the offer ever was made, and repeatedly confesses to the murder.
Wednesday’s parole hearing marked the fourth time the commission has considered Schofield’s parole case. Each time, the commission left his presumptive release date of June 24, 2023 in place, suggesting that parole was being considered. If Schofield is released, he will remain under parole supervision and could return to prison if he violated any conditions of his release.
CORRECTION: The story has been updated to clarify that it was 10 jurors, not 12, who found Schofield guilty and recommended life in prison. There were no alternates. One juror was sent home for health reasons and another because of a family emergency.
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