A Florida Judge Finds a New Job: Defending an Inmate

At first, Judge Scott Cupp was a resolute, hard-core, you-gotta-be-joking skeptic. During his years as a defense lawyer, he had heard from dozens of inmates who swore they had been wrongly convicted, and he never believed a single one. So in 2002, when he learned about a guy named Leo Schofield, who by then had already served 13 years of a life sentence for murdering his wife, he didn’t need to hear the details.

“I thought if this guy’s innocent, I’m the Queen of Sheba,” he said in a recent interview.

For the record, Judge Cupp looks nothing like any depictions of the Queen of Sheba. At 66, he has gray hair and a fluffy gray beard that gives him the appearance of a trimmed-down Santa Claus, and when agitated he lets fly curse words not found in the Bible. (“I can get a little saucy, so you can edit some of this, right?”)

But today it is not enough to say Judge Cupp merely believes Leo Schofield is innocent; he considers Mr. Schofield’s imprisonment a grotesque mistake. Anyone wondering how Judge Cupp made the journey from total doubter to ardent crusader should seek out “Bone Valley,” a nine-part podcast released last year, which recounts Mr. Schofield’s story in harrowing, infuriating detail. The show is part of the true-crime podcast bonanza, fueled by the very human urge for stories in which sanity and justice ultimately prevail.

Here comes a spoiler: “Bone Valley” is not that kind of story. Mr. Schofield is still in prison. Which so irritates Judge Cupp that freeing him will soon become his full-time and unpaid job. In a move that is certain to confound more than a few colleagues, Judge Cupp will resign his seat on the 20th Judicial Circuit Court in Charlotte County, Fla. — he has been a judge since 2014 — and dedicate all of his working days to springing Mr. Schofield from behind bars.

“I’m leaving money on the table,” he said in a 90-minute video interview, noting that he could have remained in his current role for nine more years. But he doesn’t have any debt, his children are grown and he lives comfortably on 26 acres with plenty of woods and a pond.

“In a way, what I’m about to do is selfish,” he went on, “because it’s for my own psyche. I need to do this. I have to do this.”

“Bone Valley” has been a triumph for Lava for Good, a production company that focuses on social justice issues. It has been downloaded 4.5 million times, reaching No. 7 on Apple’s podcast chart and turning up on best-of-the-year lists.

Lava for Good has not released financial figures, so it’s hard to know if “Bone Valley” went beyond winning hearts and minds and turned a profit, a feat that has only gotten harder as the podcast market has grown more crowded. The company’s co-founders, Jason Flom and Jeff Kempler, who initially created Lava Records, signing artists like Lorde and Kid Rock, say they are primarily interested in different kinds of results.

“For us the most important measure of success is in outcomes,” Mr. Kempler wrote in an email, “in specific cases we cover, in laws and policies, in the election of fair and progressive prosecutors.”

Mr. Schofield, whose case is the subject of the “Bone Valley” podcast, at an evidentiary hearing in 2017.Credit…Ernst Peters/The Lakeland Ledger

“Bone Valley” is reported and narrated by Gilbert King, the author of the book “Devil in the Grove,” the nonfiction account of four Black men falsely accused of raping a white woman in central Florida in 1949, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2013. Mr. King, who lives in Brooklyn, thought he was done with the Sunshine State until he visited Naples in 2018 to give a speech to the Florida Conference of Circuit Judges.

Judge Cupp attended by mistake, thinking Gilbert Gottfried, the now-deceased stand-up comic, was doing a set to add levity to the program. He quickly abandoned his plan to exit early and had a very different thought: This is the guy.

For more than a decade, he had been searching for a writer to dig into the case that preoccupied him. When Mr. King was done speaking, Judge Cupp approached and handed over his business card. On the back he had jotted down Mr. Schofield’s name and Florida Department of Corrections number.

“Not just wrongfully convicted,” he had added in a scrawl. “He’s an innocent man.”

A few days later, Mr. King called. Judge Cupp explained that during his defense lawyer days, he had overcome his initial doubts about Mr. Schofield and represented him in 2005, based on new evidence. He still failed to persuade prosecutors that they had imprisoned the wrong man. Soon after, he became a prosecutor himself and later joined the bench. But he never forgot this case.

“God help us if we can’t get this right,” he told Mr. King on the phone. Just read the trial transcripts, the judge suggested.

“I saw problems with the state’s case right away,” Mr. King recalled. Under the government’s theory, the murder occurred in the Schofield home, a single-wide trailer. “But multiple crime units did not find a single drop of blood in the place. How is that possible?”

A Lakeland Ledger clipping from 1987. Mr. Schofield has maintained he is innocent since the case against him began nearly 35 years ago. Credit…The Lakeland Ledger

The case dated to 1987, when the body of 18-year-old Michelle Schofield was discovered in a drainage canal in Lakeland, Fla., with 26 stab wounds. Suspicion quickly fell on her husband of just six months, a house painter who also played lead guitar in a bar band.

At the trial, prosecutors tarred Mr. Schofield as a violent hothead — he had struck Ms. Schofield on several occasions, the acts of an overly possessive husband, he said — and 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. Mr. Schofield was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

“Honestly, I think I was numb,” Mr. Schofield says in a face-to-face interview for the podcast conducted in the prison, describing his reaction to the verdict. “I was so numb and beat down and disgusted I don’t think sadness was the reaction for me. For me, I was incredulous that this could even be taking place.”

Notably missing from the government’s case was any physical evidence linking Mr. Schofield to the crime. But fingerprints had been found in his wife’s car. Figuring out whom they belonged to became a fixation for Crissie Carter, a social worker who had met Mr. Schofield in prison when he assisted her in life skill classes she taught to inmates. In 1995, the two married, a turn of events that Ms. Carter, who now goes by Carter-Schofield, could scarcely believe herself.

“I didn’t know how to talk about it for years,” she said in a phone interview. “And the very few people I did share this with didn’t want to talk to me, because they thought there was something wrong with me.”

One of those former friends was a police officer, Synda Maynard, who was then married to Scott Cupp. In 2004, Ms. Carter-Schofield spent months begging, pleading and whining to persuade a very skeptical Officer Maynard to seek a match for the fingerprints recovered in Ms. Schofield’s car.

A few weeks later, Officer Maynard called with startling news. The prints belonged to Jeremy Scott, a deeply troubled, mentally diminished and violent man who, it turned out, had regularly taken a former girlfriend to the very secluded place where Ms. Schofield’s body was found. He was serving a life sentence for robbing and beating a man to death with a grape juice bottle.

When Mr. Cupp learned about the prints, he agreed to become Mr. Schofield’s lawyer, expecting that the prosecution would soon produce a face-saving plea deal and bring the life sentence to a swift end.

“I thought the case had unraveled for the state and Leo’s going to get out,” he said. “Wrong, wrong, wrong.”

Mr. Schofield stayed put, even after Mr. Scott took the stand at an evidentiary hearing in 2017 and confessed under oath.

Jeremy Scott at the 2017 hearing, during which he confessed to killing Michelle Schofield.Credit…Ernst Peters/The Lakeland Ledger

Mr. Schofield has since earned a bachelor’s degree from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and leads a prison ministry attended by 150 inmates every Sunday. He has never had a private moment with his wife of nearly 30 years, let alone a conjugal visit. The daughter the couple adopted in 2000 now has two children of her own. His disciplinary record is as close to spotless as it gets for someone who has spent decades in penitentiaries.

But on three occasions, lawyers for the state attorney’s office have shown up at parole board hearings to argue that Mr. Schofield is a remorseless killer who should die in prison. And someone from that office will apparently attend hearing No. 4, scheduled for sometime in March or April.

“If we thought that Leo Schofield, or any other inmate, was innocent, we would take immediate action to right that injustice,” said Jacob S. Orr, chief assistant state attorney for Florida’s 10th Judicial Circuit. “However, the state cannot ignore the overwhelming amount of evidence that has proven Leo Schofield guilty.”

“I am done sitting idly by and letting the state assault this man,” Judge Cupp said of Mr. Schofield. Credit…Scott McIntyre for The New York Times

Mr. Orr attached a two-page document of detailed talking points. “It seems this is an attempt to promote a podcast,” reads one sentence.

That’s a line that Judge Cupp has heard before.

“I hope to God somebody says that in my presence,” he said during the interview, talking about the upcoming parole hearing. “Yeah, we’re just rolling in dough here.”

He and Mr. Schofield have become friends, bonded by the latter’s struggle and their shared Christian faith. In a bonus episode released last week, Judge Cupp visits Mr. Schofield at Hardee Correctional Institution to ask permission to represent him again. In a subsequent interview with Mr. King, Mr. Schofield says he’s happy to have his superhero back.

It might take superheroics to free Mr. Schofield. Or maybe the state will be daunted by the media spectacle the next parole hearing is sure to be and skip the proceeding. Prosecutors are under no obligation to attend.

Either way, Judge Cupp is ready. Asked why he had left behind a comfortable career and a steady paycheck, and why he would succeed where previous lawyers had failed, he paused for a moment, as though contemplating a barbell he was eager to bench press.

“I am done sitting idly by and letting the state assault this man,” he said. “And that’s what they’ve done. They’ve lied about him. They’ve assaulted his character. And I’m not taking it any more, on his behalf.”

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