Leo Schofield granted new hearing after convicted murderer confesses to 1987 Polk County stabbing

Leo Schofield will offer evidence that another man confessed to killing his wife.
Published March 6 2017
Updated March 9 2017

Leo Schofield, sentenced to life in prison 28 years ago for killing his wife in Polk County, has been granted a hearing to show new evidence that another man confessed to the brutal stabbing.

Last year, St. Petersburg lawyer Andrew Crawford filed court records stating that murderer Jeremy Lynn Scott described to him during a prison phone call how he killed Michelle Saum Schofield. A lawyer unrelated to the case listened in as a witness and signed an affidavit swearing he heard the confession.

A Polk County circuit judge granted Crawford's motion for a new hearing Feb. 22 and will ultimately decide if Schofield will get a new trial. The hearing has not been scheduled.

Schofield's current wife, Crissie Carter Schofield, said they are optimistic about the upcoming court date. The couple met when Crissie, a social worker, was teaching prisoners resume writing and checkbook balancing. They married in 1995.

"We are beyond ready to put this prison experience behind us," she told a reporter Monday.

Schofield, 51, has maintained his innocence since the Feb. 24, 1987, murder. Michelle, 18, was leaving work from a burger drive-in in her orange Mazda. Her body was discovered three days later in a canal. She was stabbed 26 times.

No physical evidence tied Schofield to the murder, records state, so prosecutors centered their case on a witness who testified she heard screaming from the Schofields' trailer and saw Leo Schofield carry a "heavy object" outside.

But at the heart of the defense's argument were several unidentified fingerprints inside the car that did not match Schofield.

A jury convicted Schofield of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to life in prison in 1989.

Years later, new technology determined that the prints in Michelle's car belonged to Scott. In 2009, an appeals court granted Schofield a hearing.

Scott, sentenced in 1989 to life in prison for strangling a man and bashing his head with a grape juice bottle, testified. He explained that he left his prints after yanking the stereo out of Michelle's car. Schofield was denied a new trial.

In 2015, Crawford wrote to Scott at the Columbia Correctional Institution in Lake City. Months later, Scott agreed to speak with him.

With lawyer Sean Costis listening in, Crawford spoke to Scott on July 29. Scott said he asked Michelle for a ride and gave her directions to a lake. In a haze of prescription pills, Scott stabbed and killed her, he told Crawford.

In his motion requesting a new hearing, Crawford explained that Scott refused to sign an affidavit confirming his confession and declined to speak with him again. Crawford read about 2,000 pages of Scott's prison records and sent letters to inmates who met Scott through the years, asking if they knew anything about the murder.

One inmate, Paul Kline, responded. After Scott's interview with investigators when his fingerprints were found in the car, he told Kline he killed Michelle, the motion states. Prison records confirm that Kline and Scott were housed near each other.

In her response, Polk County Assistant State Attorney Victoria Avalon pointed to Scott's mental health, including brain damage and attention-deficit disorder, and the lack of the affidavit.

"The record suggests that a borderline-intellectually disabled inmate may have been induced — one hopes inadvertently — to confess to a crime that he did not commit," Avalon wrote.

In his response, Crawford wrote he "chooses not to respond to the unwarranted personal attacks."

Crawford and Avalon declined to comment Monday, citing the ongoing case.

Polk County Circuit Judge J. Kevin Abdoney granted the new hearing. The Innocence Project of Florida will also represent Schofield. A status conference in the case is scheduled for March 15.

Contact Laura C. Morel at lmorel@tampabay.com. Follow @lauracmorel.