Inmate recants his murder story
His confession withers, weakening efforts of the slain woman’s husband to get a new trial.
BARTOW — Jeremy Lynn Scott hung his head and closed his eyes as he testified Thursday morning, avoiding eye contact with the courtroom crowd as he confessed to murdering Michelle Saum Schofield on a rainy February night in 1987.
But she isn’t the only one Scott admitted killing.
In February, he wrote a letter to the State Attorney’s Office confessing to “all 1987 to 1988 murders” in Florida. And after two hours on the stand Thursday, choking back tears as Assistant State Attorney Victoria Avalon pointed out discrepancy after discrepancy in his story, Scott took back his latest confession.
“No, no, I didn’t do that,” Scott said, as Avalon demanded he open his eyes, turn his face and look at a photo of Schofield’s body taken at the crime scene.
The about-face dealt a blow to an effort by Schofield’s husband, 51-year-old Leo Schofield, to get a new trial in the case. A jury convicted him of first-degree murder in the death of his 18-year-old wife, and he was sentenced to life in prison in 1988. Schofield, who
has maintained his innocence in court, won’t be eligible for parole until 2023.
The hearing in his two-day bid for a new trial, in which the defense presented new written and recorded statements of Scott confessing to the murder, opened Thursday in Bartow with Scott’s testimony. He was followed by his former prison roommate at Northwest Florida Reception Center, Paul Kline; a special investigator with the State Attorney’s Office, Thomas Andrews; and St. Petersburg lawyer Sean Costis, who heard Scott confess to Schofield’s defense attorney, John Crawford, in 2016.
But under the prosecutor’s questioning, Scott cast doubts on his prior confessions.
He said he couldn’t remember if the victim had a purse, the kind of car she drove or if she wore a skirt or pants that night.
He testified under oath that he had lived with the guilt of the murder for 38 years, but it has only been 30. He shifted nervously as Avalon recited portions of statements from as early as 2005, all repeatedly denying he was responsible for killing Michelle Schofield.
The tears came again when Avalon asked Scott if he had lied to his grandmother about a key piece of evidence when he called her once from prison around 2004, when he first became tied to the case. Delayed forensic evidence matched him with unidentified fingerprints found in Michelle Schofield’s orange Mazda, which was abandoned off Interstate 4 the night she disappeared.
Scott told his grandmother, who lived near the area where the dead woman was found, that he didn’t know the Schofields. Instead, he said, he assumed the car was one of many he had broken into over the years.
“No. No, I don’t want to answer that question,” Scott replied at first, then added, “No, I didn’t lie to my grandma.”
It’s the same story he told in 2006, when a Polk County judge denied Schofield’s first motion for a hearing to prove the fingerprints were Scott’s, and repeated in 2010 when an appeals court overturned that ruling and granted the hearing. After two days of testimony, Circuit Judge Keith Spoto denied the appeal, saying he had no reason to doubt Scott’s claims he only stole the car’s stereo.
But Monday, he waffled between that account and the one he told moments after being sworn in of how he mur- dered the young woman. He was drunk that night and his memory was hazy, he said at one pointed. Then he confirmed a statement from a prison interview in which he said he, “could never do that to a woman,” but also said he could “bash a b---- in the head if they do me wrong.”
“Why are you bashing me?” he asked the prosecution. “I just want to go back to my cell.”
Leo Schofield sat stone-faced as Scott took back the story he had just delivered, with eyes open and staring straight ahead, only moments earlier.
In that testimony, Scott said he had approached Michelle Schofield while she talked on a pay phone outside a Texaco gas station near Lakeland, asked her for a ride to a nearby mobile home park and instead directed her to a “makeout lake” where he stabbed her 26 times and left her body in a canal.
A crowd of about 20 of Schofield’s friends, family members of both him and his late wife, representatives from the Innocence Project of Florida and staff he befriended while imprisoned from Hardee Correctional Institution were visibly upset by Scott’s wavering story. But they waved and told Schofield “we love you” as he was escorted from the courtroom.
“My feelings are too complicated,” Schofield’s second wife, Crissie Carter Schofield, said after Monday’s hearing. “We have empathy for Jeremy, we pray for his salvation, but we want Leo home. It’s been too long.”
Scott has been imprisoned in a mental health center and suffers from multiple psychiatric disorders. When he wrote the letters admitting the murders, he was off his medication, he testified Monday.
Scott was never offered any deal for confessing to the Schofield killing, he said. He is already serving two life sentences, one for a robbery and another for killing a man in 1989 by strangling him and bashing in his head with a grape juice bottle.
He said he had hoped that confessing to more murders would land him on death row. Instead, he’ll be returned to county jail before being sent to yet another “close management” cell in prison.
“I’m going to be in a cold cell,” he said, “sleeping on the floor, eating with my fingers, in a place where I can’t get no help.”
Leo Schofield Jr., center, stands next to his attorney Andrew Crawford after listening to Jeremy Scott’s testimony Thursday.