Lawyer argues for new trial in '87 Lakeland slaying

Appellate attorneys Richard Bartmon, left, and Scott Cupp, center, talk with Leo Schofield’s wife, Crissie Schofield, after a hearing Wednesday at the 2nd District Court of Appeal. Judges listened to arguments but have no deadline to make a decision in the case.

LARA CERRI | Times

Appellate attorneys Richard Bartmon, left, and Scott Cupp, center, talk with Leo Schofield’s wife, Crissie Schofield, after a hearing Wednesday at the 2nd District Court of Appeal. Judges listened to arguments but have no deadline to make a decision in the case.

TAMPA — Appellate judges considering whether a man serving a life sentence for murdering his wife should get a new trial had pointed questions Wednesday for his lawyers.

Leo Schofield's attorneys want to raise the violent history of another suspect in the murder, but judges from the 2nd District Court of Appeal questioned whether that evidence would even be admissible in court.

The judges noted that a lower court judge knew about that history — and about fingerprint evidence Schofield's lawyers are asking them to look at — but still wouldn't grant a new trial. So why, the appellate judges asked, should they be any more impressed?

In early 1987, Schofield's wife, Michelle, was found stabbed to death, floating in a Lakeland canal. Her abandoned red Mazda was found 7 miles away, with her blood in it.

Schofield's murder trial was based entirely on circumstantial evidence.

Witnesses said they saw Schofield hit his wife in the months before her death. A neighbor said she heard the couple arguing in their trailer on the night Michelle disappeared and saw Leo carry something resembling a sleeping child to the Mazda.

The prosecution said Leo stabbed Michelle 26 times in the trailer — even though no blood was found there — and took her body to the canal in the Mazda. Other witnesses questioned the neighbor's version of events, but a jury convicted Schofield.

Then, in 2004, mysterious fingerprints in the Mazda were identified as belonging to Jeremy Scott, who was serving a life sentence for murder and had a history of violent crimes. Scott lived a few miles from the canal where Michelle's body was found.

But a lower court judge ruled against a new trial because he said the evidence against Scott was trumped by the evidence against Schofield.

At Wednesday's hearing appellate judge Craig Villanti told Schofield's attorney: "Your presumption … is that all of the new evidence (about Scott's violence) is admissible. … Without that evidence, your case is a loser. With it, it's debatable."

Schofield attorney Richard Bartmon replied, "The state is arguing … that Schofield was a violent guy, which opens the door for Scott's violent history."

Bartmon added: "It would pervert the truth-seeking function of the court not to allow (all of the Scott evidence). … The reason to allow it is fairness — to give the jury the whole story."

Prosecutor Patricia McCarthy countered: "The prints alone don't establish that (Scott) had any contact with the victim. … The (lower court) judge saw that the evidence against Schofield was overwhelming."

The appellate panel has no deadline for its ruling.

Meanwhile, Leo Schofield is 22 years into his life sentence and Jeremy Scott is 23 years into his, for a different murder.

Meg Laughlin can be reached at mlaughlin@sptimes.com.

Lawyer argues for new trial in '87 Lakeland slaying 06/08/11 [Last modified: Thursday, June 9, 2011 12:43am]

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