BARTOW — Twenty-one years into a life sentence for murdering his wife, Leo Schofield was escorted into a Polk County courtroom Wednesday and given a chance to put on evidence to suggest another man murdered her.
Polk Circuit Judge Keith Spoto can order a new trial if he considers the new evidence strong enough that it could have changed the outcome of the 1989 trial.
The evidence includes fingerprints left by Jeremy Scott, a convicted murderer, that were found in Michelle Schofield's abandoned vehicle.
Scott, serving a life sentence for an unrelated murder, took the witness stand in shackles Wednesday afternoon and denied he killed Michelle Schofield.
"No sir, I did not,'' he said.
Earlier Wednesday, his girlfriend at that time, Jami Nelams, testified that Scott frequented the remote canal where Michelle's body was dumped.
"He was very violent and controlling,'' Nelams said, raising her face to show the judge her crooked jaw. "Jeremy hit me in the face with a baseball bat,'' she said, and punched her in the face and stomach "multiple times.''
She said he took her to the canal to have sex. "If I didn't want to have sex, he would choke me till I passed out,'' she testified.
Scott said he had not been violent with Nelams or anyone else — except for the murder he committed by cracking the skull of a man he was robbing and strangling him with a telephone cord.
No physical evidence connected Schofield to the 1987 murder of his wife, who was stabbed 26 times, her body dumped in a canal east of Lakeland. Her Mazda was found 7 miles away, with her blood and unidentified fingerprints inside.
A jury convicted Schofield of first-degree murder based on witnesses who said they had seen him hit Michelle in the past, and based on the testimony of neighbor Alice Scott (no relation to Jeremy Scott) who lived in a trailer across from the Schofields and said she saw Leo carry a "heavy object'' to their Mazda the night Michelle disappeared.
In closing arguments at the 1989 trial, Schofield's defense attorney said that witness accounts of where Leo was the night Michelle died made it impossible for him to have killed her. No match had been made to the fingerprints in the Mazda, and Schofield's attorney asked the jurors, "Wouldn't you like to know who the fingerprints belong to?''
It wasn't until 2004, some 15 years after Schofield was convicted, that a fingerprint match was made: The prints belonged to Jeremy Scott, whose rap sheet dates to when he was 11 years old and includes armed robbery, assault and battery, plus murder.
In February 1987, when Michelle was murdered, Scott was 18 and sometimes lived with his grandmother in a trailer less than 2 miles from where Michelle's body was dumped in a canal.
Jeremy Scott told the judge Wednesday that his fingerprints must have been inside Michelle's Mazda because he stole the stereo from the vehicle. He said went to the canal where Michelle's body was dumped "only once.''
Under questioning by Schofield's attorney, Scott Cupp, Jeremy Scott conceded that he had been to the canal more than once, "both daytime and nighttime.''
He also was asked why Wednesday was the first time he offered the explanation that he stole speakers out of Michelle's car and that's how his fingerprints ended up inside. His reply: He didn't recognize the car in the photos of the outside. But then he saw photos of the inside of the vehicle and recognized it.
He also told the judge he didn't know anything about the location of his fingerprints in the car and that he had never met either of the Schofields.
But Cupp played a tape recording of a phone conversation of Scott talking to his grandmother from prison in which he told her that police said his fingerprints were on the glass window and on a piece of paper in the cargo area. He also told his grandmother he thought he had met Schofield.
The hearing is scheduled to conclude today; the original prosecutor, John Aguero, is expected to testify. The judge has not said when he will rule.
Meg Laughlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.