Convicted murderer confesses to 1987 Polk County stabbing, says Leo Schofield is innocent

Published Sept. 21, 2016

On the day of his sentencing in 1989, Leo Schofield pleaded with jurors for mercy. He didn't kill his wife, he told them. "I'm telling you, you're making a mistake. I can prove it to you," he said.

Schofield was sentenced to life in prison.

But nearly 28 years later, another man has now confessed to stabbing Michelle Saum Schofield, according to a motion filed Monday in Polk Circuit Court.

SPECIAL REPORT: An in-depth look at the investigation into Michelle Schofield's death and Leo Schofield's conviction

In it, Schofield's attorney Andrew Crawford states that convicted murderer Jeremy Lynn Scott described to him, in a July 29 prison phone call, how he killed Michelle. A lawyer unrelated to the case, Sean Costis, listened in as a witness and signed an affidavit swearing he heard the confession.

The killer told Crawford that Schofield was an "innocent man," according to the affidavit. He asked the lawyer to relay a message to Schofield: He was sorry.

Crawford is asking the court for a hearing to present the confession. He also wants Schofield's conviction overturned.

But Polk State Attorney Jerry Hill said that unless there is a recording or a sworn statement signed by Scott himself, the confession is hearsay and "legally insufficient."

"If I sound skeptical, there's a reason for it," Hill said Tuesday. "It's because I'm skeptical."

On the night of Feb. 24, 1987, 18-year-old Michelle Saum Schofield was leaving work from a burger drive-in in her orange Mazda. Two days later, the car was found on the side of Interstate 4 in Lakeland. Her body was discovered three days later in a canal 7 miles away, stabbed 26 times.

In June 1988, Schofield was indicted on a charge of first-degree murder. Pleading guilty could have gotten Schofield a much shorter sentence, but "I couldn't bring myself to say I did something I didn't do," he told the Tampa Bay Times in 2007.

No physical evidence tied Schofield to the murder, records state, so prosecutors centered their case on a main witness who testified she heard screaming from the Schofields' trailer and saw Leo carry a "heavy object" outside. Other witnesses chronicled the couple's string of domestic disputes, portraying Schofield as an abusive spouse.

But at the heart of the defense's argument were several unidentified fingerprints inside the car that didn't match Schofield. His attorney at the time asked the jury: "Wouldn't you like to know whose fingerprints those are in the Mazda?"

The jury convicted Schofield, now 50, of first-degree murder.

Using new technology, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement tested the prints in 2004 and found a match: Jeremy Lynn Scott.

Scott, known as "Bam Bam," has a violent criminal record spanning seven felony convictions for armed robbery, arson and battery. At 15, he was acquitted of one murder, records show, but was sentenced in 1989 to life in prison for bashing a man's head with a grape juice bottle and then strangling him.

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Schofield has maintained his innocence through the years. In 2006, his attorneys filed a motion seeking an evidentiary hearing to show the fingerprints belonged to Scott. A judge denied the motion, but an appeals court granted Schofield a hearing, which took place in 2010.

Scott testified then, explaining that he left his prints in the Mazda after yanking the stereo out of Michelle's car. But the radio, according to court records, was still in the dashboard when investigators examined it.

The judge denied Schofield a new trial.

"The system is not designed to efficiently consider new evidence that would overturn a conviction," said Seth Miller, executive director of the Innocence Project of Florida, which has been involved in Schofield's defense. "This is a person who's been fighting for years to clear his name and to get out and rejoin his family and has met a lot of roadblocks."

Schofield has never lost hope, said his wife, Crissie Carter Schofield. The couple met when Crissie, a social worker, was teaching prisoners resume writing and checkbook balancing. They married in 1995.

Proving Schofield's innocence is about much more than finding vindication, Crissie said. It's about seeking justice for Michelle.

"Justice is supposed to happen, but it doesn't, so it gets harder through the years," she said. "It's maddening."

Crawford, who is based in St. Petersburg, began representing Schofield pro bono last year. "I truly believe that Leo Schofield is innocent," he said.

Last September, Crawford wrote to Scott at the Columbia Correctional Institution in Lake City. Ten months later, Scott replied. He wanted to talk "one on one," court records state.

With the other lawyer also listening, Crawford talked to Scott.

Scott recalled the moments leading up to Michelle's murder.

It was raining that day when he saw Michelle using a phone at a gas station and asked her for a ride. He gave her directions to a lake. And in a haze of prescription pills, Scott stabbed and killed her, he told Crawford.

He would be willing to take a polygraph test, he said.

But Hill, the state attorney, questioned Scott's honesty. The motion mentions a comment Scott made before he agreed to the phone call, asking "what was in it for him" if he helped. Crawford wrote in his motion that Scott did not receive any benefits.

Scott also refused to sign a sworn statement or to speak to a private investigator in Schofield's case.

Crawford said Scott's statement is corroborated by evidence apart from his prints. Scott lived less than 2 miles away from where Michelle's body was found and witnesses saw her talking on a pay phone.

With the motion now filed, a judge will either deny it or grant Schofield a new hearing.

Days before Scott's phone call, Schofield had prayed for two things: truth and confession, his wife said. Upon hearing the news, Crissie froze with shock. She kept Scott's confession to herself until she could tell her husband in person.

"We just broke down in tears, both of us," she said. "It's kind of weird. You would anticipate an elation. It was not that. It's like intense sadness. We've been living this for a long time."

Contact Laura C. Morel at Follow @lauracmorel.