BARTOW — Polk Assistant State Attorney John Aguero, who has prosecuted dozens of murderers in his lengthy career, took his seat in the witness box Thursday and swore to tell the truth.
Called by the state at a hearing on whether Leo Schofield should get a new trial for the murder of his wife Michelle, Aguero said it didn't matter that fingerprints found in Michelle's Mazda were later matched to convicted murderer Jeremy Scott.
Aguero testified that he did not think Scott killed Michelle.
He said he believed Scott's "reasonable explanation" for how his prints got inside the Mazda: He left them when he stole the car stereo.
The two-day hearing ended Thursday. It's up to Polk Circuit Judge Keith Spoto to decide if the new evidence warrants a new trial for Schofield, who has served 21 years in prison after turning down a plea offer before trial that would have had him out of prison about a decade ago.
Schofield will have to wait at least two months more. The judge gave attorneys that much time to file arguments and counter-arguments.
No physical evidence tied Schofield to the murder. But prosecutor C.J. Benefield listed circumstantial evidence from the 1989 trial that led the jury to convict Schofield of first-degree murder.
Witnesses testified they had seen Schofield slap and punch his wife in the months before her murder in February 1987, he told the judge.
A neighbor said she heard the couple arguing and saw Schofield carry "a heavy object wrapped in something" to the couple's Mazda the night Michelle Schofield disappeared. After a few days of searching, Leo's father found Michelle's body, riddled with stab wounds, in a canal.
"He said it was a premonition," said Benefield.
Police found the abandoned car 7 miles away. Inside were spots of Michelle's blood and fingerprints in the hatchback area and on the inside of the driver's window.
The fingerprints — which belong to Scott — are the foundation of the defense case.
He is serving a life sentence for cracking a man's skull and choking him to death with a phone cord. Scott stayed with family 1.7 miles from where Michelle's body was found and has a history of violent crimes dating to childhood.
An ex-girlfriend testified at this week's hearing that Scott took her to the canal for sex more than once a few months after Michelle's death.
When Scott testified that he didn't commit the murder, he got caught lying several times about his knowledge of the case.
Schofield attorney Scott Cupp told the judge: "You have to find him credible to deny our claim."
The claim is that Scott's fingerprints in Michelle's car, his history of violence, his proximity to the canal and his lying on the stand so weaken the case against Schofield that the judge should have reasonable doubt and order a new trial.
The last word went to the prosecutor. Said Benefield: "The evidence against Schofield is too strong to produce an acquittal."