For 34 years, Leo Schofield Jr. has been imprisoned in Florida for the murder of his wife, Michelle Schofield. He has maintained his innocence and has been denied parole three times, even after another man convicted of murder in a separate case admitted to the killing.
Supporters and criminal justice advocates who have rallied around Mr. Schofield hoped Wednesday would be the day he finally walked free after his latest parole hearing.
Instead, a parole board in Tallahassee, Fla., extended his incarceration for a year and voted to transfer him from the Hardee Correctional Institution in Bowling Green, Fla., to another prison, Everglades Correctional Institution west of Miami, with a transitional program for long-term inmates.
Mr. Schofield’s supporters say that the evidence should have led to his release into a parole program, if not a complete exoneration, and that the decision did not go far enough. But the decision could have been harsher — one parole board member wanted to extend Mr. Schofield’s incarceration by 18 months, and another wanted to extend it by 24 months. Mr. Schofield will be moved to a facility near Miami for 12 months, at which point he will come back to the parole board for another review.
“He’s been in a long time and he’s going to need programming to be successful,” David. A Wyant, a parole commissioner, said on Wednesday. “I understand his support is overwhelming and that’s important in my decision.”
Melinda N. Coonrod, commissioner and chair of the Florida Commission on Offender Review, advocated for Mr. Schofield’s release into a halfway house, but said she proposed the 12-month extension in order to avoid a split decision.
In his 34 years in prison, Mr. Schofield, who grew up in Massachusetts, has been a model inmate, his lawyers said. He remarried, adopted a daughter, who has since had two children of her own, and earned a bachelor’s degree from the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
Mr. Schofield’s harrowing story has been documented in “Bone Valley,” a nine-part podcast hosted by the author Gilbert King that was released in the fall. The podcast traded the traditional whodunit approach of many true crime podcasts and series for something else entirely: an attempt to prove Mr. Schofield’s innocence.
In the podcast, Mr. King painted a picture of a prosecution and conviction that were so riddled with errors — including a lack of evidence connecting Mr. Schofield to the crime and an unprepared trial lawyer who later testified that he had not represented his client fairly — that a Florida circuit judge quit his job to try to help exonerate Mr. Schofield in what he believed was a wrongful conviction.
“Thank you to everyone who tuned in or followed along, and who continues to support Leo and his fight for Justice,” Lava For Good, the podcast’s production company, said in a tweet. “We are heartbroken at today’s decision, but we will continue to do everything we can until Leo is finally free, where he should be.”
In 1987, the body of Ms. Schofield, who was 18, was discovered in a drainage canal in Lakeland, Fla., with 26 stab wounds. Suspicion quickly grew around Mr. Schofield, her husband of just six months. At the trial, prosecutors called 21 witnesses, who portrayed Mr. Schofield as hotheaded and abusive. A neighbor said she had seen him on the night of the murder, moving a large object from his home that could have been a body. The state argued that Mr. Schofield had time to murder his wife and that he had set up a false alibi about being with his parents that night.
But there was never any physical evidence linking Mr. Schofield to the crime.
Investigators struggled to match a set of fingerprints found in the Schofields’ car to either Mr. Schofield or his wife. Because fingerprints were not computerized in 1987, matching the two fingerprints that investigators lifted from the car required comparing them side by side against known prints.
The fingerprints went unidentified until 2004, when Mr. Schofield’s second wife, a social worker whom he met in a life-skills class in prison, implored a friend in law enforcement to run them one more time. There was a match: Jeremy Scott, who was already serving a life sentence for robbing and beating a man to death.
Mr. Scott confessed to the murder of Ms. Schofield a number of times, including in a detailed interview for “Bone Valley.” Speaking from prison, Mr. Scott detailed how he came across Ms. Schofield at a pay phone. She offered him a ride home, but instead, Mr. Scott directed her to a secluded spot he frequented, near the drainage canal. Mr. Scott said he came onto her. She rejected him, and he began to stab her repeatedly, he said.
After Mr. Scott’s fingerprints were identified, a circuit judge denied Mr. Schofield a new trial, a decision his attorneys appealed. Their appeal was ultimately denied.
“Bone Valley” attracted new attention to Mr. Schofield’s case. The show is reported and narrated by Mr. King, who won a Pulitzer Prize for “Devil in the Grove,” a nonfiction account of four Black men falsely accused of raping a white woman in Central Florida in 1949.
“I ask that you consider the fact that I stood on my innocence in the face of plea agreements that would have allowed me to go home within four years, and rather stayed in prison for over three decades,” Mr. Schofield said in a letter that was read into the record on Wednesday.
But Ricky Saum, one of Ms. Schofield’s brothers, said Mr. Schofield “should stay in jail for the rest of his life.”
“I believe in God, and I believe in the courts, and the courts got it right,” he said. “He tortured my sister, he mentally tortured her, he violently tortured her.”
In a statement, Scott Cupp, the former judge who retired to fight for Mr. Schofield’s release, said the parole commission’s decision “was not the ideal outcome” but was “finally progress.”
“We are not done fighting for Leo’s freedom,” he said.
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