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Who killed Michelle Schofield?

By Meg Laughlin And Don Morris | Times Staff
In print: June 5, 2011

Related special report:
  • Doubt: A new look at murder
    He is serving life for murdering his wife, but did he do it? Only he knows. Is there reasonable doubt? Yes, starting with a new fingerprint match. (Aug. 26, 2007)
image of car and map
Michelle Saum Schofield
Michelle Saum Schofield in 1986

Michelle Saum Schofield, 18, was found stabbed to death in a Polk County canal in February 1987. Her car was about 7 miles away, with her blood in it. ¶ Her husband, Leo Schofield, was convicted of her murder despite his insistence that he was innocent. The evidence was circumstantial, not physical. ¶ Sixteen years after the conviction, fingerprints found in Michelle's car were finally identified. They belonged to Jeremy Scott, a convicted killer who lived near the canal. ¶ Schofield -- now 46, in prison the last 22 years -- is seeking a new trial arguing jurors probably would have acquitted him if they had known about the prints. ¶ On Wednesday, an appellate court will hear Schofield's arguments for a new trial. Here's some of what the judges will learn about the fingerprints.

Leo Schofield

Leo Schofield in 2010

Jeremy Scott's statements

When detectives asked Jeremy Scott why his fingerprints were in Michelle's car, he said it was probably because he often broke into cars he saw on the side of the road.

But for five years, again and again, he said he didn't recognize that particular car:

• In January 2005 he was interviewed by Polk County sheriff's detective Louis Giampavolo and shown photos of the car. He said he didn't remember it.

• Scott -- already in prison for a different murder -- then called his grandmother. "They showed me pictures of the car," he told her. "I don't recognize the car."

• Five years later, in February 2010, Scott told Schofield's lawyers in a deposition that he "couldn't recognize the car like that because, like I say, I've seen so many cars."

After looking at photos of Schofield's red Mazda for a long time, Scott tells Detective Louis Giampavolo he does not recognize the car.

Scott calls his grandmother after the interview and tells her about the detective's questions. He says, "I don't recognize that car."
 Excerpt from Detective Giampolavo's 2004 report

Jeremy ScottJeremy Scott describes how his palm print could have ended up on the inside of the abandoned Mazda owned by Michelle Saum Schofield.

The evidentiary hearing: Scott's story changes

In May 2010, Schofield had an evidentiary hearing before Polk Circuit Judge Keith Spoto in hopes of getting a new trial. His lawyers introduced evidence about Scott's history of violence and his visits to the canal around the same time Michelle's body was dumped in it. The fingerprint evidence, of course, was crucial. ¶ But now Scott's story was different. He said he was shown photos of the inside of Michelle's car by Giampavolo in 2005 and "recognized it" as one he had tried to burglarize. ¶ This realization seemed to come out of nowhere, and flew in the face of what he had been saying for five years.

The ruling

At the end of the evidentiary hearing, Schofield's attorney Scott Cupp told the judge: "You'd have to find him (Jeremy Scott) credible to deny our claim" for a new trial. ¶ Spoto did just that. Despite the contradictions, he ruled that Scott's explanation of why his fingerprints were found in the car was "credible." The fingerprints didn't weaken the case enough "to give rise to a reasonable doubt," said the judge. Schofield could not have a new trial.

Michelle Saum Schofield

"Although Mr. Scott may not be an entirely credible witness in many respects, the Court found his explanation of why his fingerprints were found in the victim's car to be credible."

Judge Keith Spotto, Polk County circuit court

What's next

On Wednesday, the Second District Court of Appeal will reconsider. Will the judges support Spoto's ruling, despite Scott's contradictions? Or will the judges question Scott's fingerprint explanation and give Schofield a new trial after 22 years?

Schofield lawyer Richard Bartmon wrote in a brief: "The fingerprints need not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Jeremy Scott killed Michelle Schofield. But they could raise reasonable doubt about Leo Schofield's guilt."

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