A state appellate court ruled Friday that Leo Schofield, convicted in 1989 of murdering his wife, deserves a hearing so that a judge can review important new evidence to decide if Schofield should get a second trial.
Schofield, who is serving a life sentence in a Florida prison, has been incarcerated for 21 years.
The major piece of new evidence, revealed in a St. Petersburg Times investigative report two years ago, is a set of fingerprints found in the car of the murder victim, Michelle Saum. The prints are not Schofield's and belong to a man convicted of a different murder and a string of other crimes.
In its decision, reversing the 2008 ruling of a Polk County circuit judge who denied Schofield an evidentiary hearing, the appellate panel wrote: "The newly discovered evidence is of such a nature that it would probably produce an acquittal on retrial."
On Feb. 24, 1987, Michelle Saum, 18, left the Lakeland burger drive-in where she worked and headed out in her orange Mazda. The next day, her broken-down car was found on the side of I-4, and her body was found by Schofield's father in a canal a few miles away on Feb. 27. She had been stabbed 26 times.
Prosecutors did not attempt to identify fingerprints in her car that were not Schofield's. But, in 2004, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement ran the prints and discovered they belonged to Jeremy Scott, who lived a mile and a half from Saum. Scott is serving a life sentence for murder, armed robbery and theft. But jurors heard nothing about him or the fingerprints at Schofield's trial.
Alice Scott (no relation to Jeremy Scott), who lived across the street from Saum and Schofield, testified at Schofield's 1989 murder trial. She said that on the night Saum disappeared she heard the couple fighting and saw Schofield carry "a heavy object wrapped in cloth" about the "size of a sleeping child" from the couple's trailer to their Mazda, then drive away.
No blood was found in the car, but jurors believed Alice Scott clearly linked Schofield to the murder and convicted him.
Years later, Scott's husband Ricky Scott, who was with her the night Saum disappeared, said his wife "twisted the truth" and "didn't see what she said she saw." At the same time, Alice Scott told the Times she has been "frequently hospitalized over the years for nervous and emotional problems that make (her) delusional." But the jury was not aware of this information.
Polk County Assistant State Attorney John Aguero, who prosecuted Schofield and won a conviction, told the Times when the investigative report was published that he believed Schofield should get an evidentiary hearing "based on the identification of the fingerprints" in the car.
"But I seriously doubt Schofield will get acquitted if he gets a new trial," he said.
The Polk County State Attorney's Office has 15 days to ask the appellate court to reverse its decision.
Meg Laughlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8068.