Opinion | Justice Delayed

In March of 1989, I spent two days sitting in a Dallas courthouse among a group of journalists watching justice being blocked.

Randall Dale Adams, who had served 12 years for the murder of a police officer, had been granted a new trial by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. This was a year after the filmmaker Errol Morris essentially proved that he was innocent — and that another man, who essentially confessed to the murder on film in Mr. Morris’s documentary “The Thin Blue Line,” was guilty.

In a damning ruling, the appeals court accepted the findings of a lower court that Dallas County prosecutors had suppressed evidence favorable to Mr. Adams, deceived the court on the whereabouts of a witness and knowingly used perjured testimony. But prosecutors were still disinclined to let Mr. Adams go.

At a bail hearing, they played games for two days with the court, demanding that the sitting judge be removed from the case, requiring a second judge to fly in from Waco, Texas, only to rule that the first judge could in fact stay. Then the district attorney, John Vance, argued for bail that Mr. Adams could not afford nor probably raise.

“I don’t think Randall Dale Adams ought to be out on the street,” he said of the man his office had railroaded.

Nearly 36 hours after the hearing began, Mr. Adams finally left the building on bail, pending a new trial, after his conviction had been overturned. I have kept a photo of the moment across from my desk for nearly 35 years. Wearing borrowed clothes as he walked to a waiting car, his hands held out in front of him as if still in handcuffs, Mr. Adams was asked by one of the sea of reporters and photographers how it felt to be back in the world.

“I’m not out of Dallas yet,” he said, and seemed to walk faster.

I thought of Mr. Adams often as I kept track of the recent news from Tallahassee, Fla., where the lawyer for Leo Schofield, 57, stood before a room packed with spectators at a parole hearing two weeks ago. Many of those spectators vehemently believed him innocent of the 1987 murder of his wife, Michelle.

The thread that connects the two men is the apparent unwillingness of their prosecutors, despite new evidence, to accept even the possibility that the men they convicted were innocent.

Like Mr. Adams, Mr. Schofield had spent much of a lifetime — 35 years — trying to regain his freedom. As in the Adams case, there was new evidence discovered: Fingerprints that were not tested for 17 years turned out to belong to a man who has been convicted of murder, and that man has confessed to Michelle Schofield’s murder. As in the Adams case, it took an outsider to bring Mr. Schofield’s case attention, the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Gilbert King, whose nine-part podcast, “Bone Valley,” has been downloaded more than six million times.

Most of all, as in the Adams case, the district attorney’s office, this time in Polk County, Fla., spent years fighting Mr. Schofield’s release. At a prior parole hearing a few years ago, the state was represented by a former prosecutor who appeared to take the case personally.

“We investigated this thing upside down,” said Jerry Hill, a retired state attorney, in a “Bone Valley” interview with Mr. King’s co-host, Kelsey Decker, minutes after the board denied parole to Mr. Schofield in 2020. “Leo Schofield is a coldblooded murderer. And if I have my way, he’ll never get out of prison.”

“The past is obdurate. It doesn’t want to change,” Stephen King wrote in his opus “11/22/63.” That could have been describing the scene in either Dallas or Tallahassee. As Mr. King’s central character, a time traveler, gets closer to preventing the assassination of John Kennedy, the past throws ever larger obstacles in his way. And so it went in the Adams and Schofield cases, as the prosecutors all but physically barred the jailhouse door.

Much has changed in the American judicial system since Randall Dale Adams walked out of that Dallas jail. For some prosecutors, exoneration has become a point of pride — a sign that the prosecutorial machinery is confident enough to review its own work and admit mistakes. Conviction Integrity Units, also called Conviction Review Units, are particularly robust in some cities, including Detroit and Philadelphia, said Barbara O’Brien, a professor at Michigan State University College of Law. Ms. O’Brien is also editor of the National Registry of Exonerations, which since its founding in 2012 has reported more than 3,000 exonerations that have taken place since 1989, including more than 230 in 2022 alone.

Where prosecutors are not re-evaluating their own convictions, a layer of what Ms. O’Brien calls “professional exonerators” has grown up — groups like the Innocence Project, law school clinics and lawyers working on cases pro bono.

But there are still prosecutors who won’t admit they were wrong, even in the face of substantial evidence. There was no expression of regret from the prosecutors who convicted Randall Dale Adams in Dallas. Nor does one seem likely from the Polk County district attorney’s office, where any defense of Leo Schofield appears to have been seen by its prosecutors as an attempt to subvert the jury’s decision and, by extension, justice.

“It happens less, because back awhile you would regularly see where it was a small town and the state attorney could be the cousin of the sheriff, and who they decided was guilty, was guilty,” said Herman Lindsey, executive director of Witness to Innocence, which provides assistance to exonerated death row inmates. (Mr. Lindsey himself spent three years on death row before the Florida Supreme Court concluded the evidence was insufficient to sustain his conviction. He is one of 30 death row inmates in Florida to be exonerated since 1972, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.)

But these wrongful convictions still happen, and not every prosecutor is willing to reconsider a conviction. “While yes, there are more prosecutors willing to be proven wrong, there are still those who show an almost Disney-villain level” of not budging, Ms. O’Brien said, adding that “the Schofield case is beyond the pale, one of the worst I have seen.”

How to explain this stubborn insistence on guilt despite what others perceive as proof of innocence or, at least, enough evidence to warrant another look?

Ms. O’Brien blames “the fact that we have an adversarial system rather than an inquisitorial one,” meaning that the court does not take part in investigating the facts but is rather assumed to be an impartial forum in which prosecution and defense present their opposing arguments. It can attract people who “see things as very black and white, there’s good guys and bad guys, where the goal is the win rather than the truth,” she said.

In other words, it takes absolute certainty to go to work every day and send people to prison for up to a lifetime. And certainty is tricky to surrender. Allowing for the probability that you were wrong once allows for the possibility that you have been wrong often, and opening that door is often unthinkable.

Scott Cupp has seen how prosecutors learn to shut the mental gates against doubt. He was a prosecutor in Florida for 17 years. “I put a lot of folks in prison,” he said, adding, “but before I did I made damn sure I was right.” Several times during his tenure, he said, he was presented evidence that he had the wrong “guy” and faced reluctance among some of his prosecutors to drop the charges, “but we ended up doing so — it’s called doing your job,” he said.

Then Mr. Cupp became a defense lawyer. In fact, he was Mr. Schofield’s lawyer off and on until he was offered a position as a judge on the 20th Judicial Circuit Court in Charlotte County, Fla., in 2014. The case haunted him while on the bench, and when he heard Gilbert King speak at an event in Naples, Fla., in 2018, he told the reporter to go read the case transcript because his client was “not just wrongly convicted. He’s an innocent man.” In March, Mr. Cupp stepped down from his position on the court to defend Mr. Schofield again, full-time and free.

“The system is made up of human beings, and human beings are flawed,” he said. “In this case, you add a relatively small town where law enforcement and prosecution is a little fish in a big pond, it’s ego pure and simple.”

When there is progress in such “small ponds,” therefore, it can be incremental. Hints of such an evolution, however glacial, were visible in the room at the latest Schofield parole hearing Mr. Cupp said. (Parole has been abolished in Florida, one of 16 states to do so, but because that happened after Mr. Schofield was sentenced, he is still entitled to parole.) The room was filled with journalists and sympathetic spectators.

This time, it was Jacob Orr, an assistant state attorney in the 10th Judicial Circuit, who stood to speak; he had not been involved in the original prosecution. “If we thought that Leo Schofield, or any other inmate, was innocent, we would take immediate action to right that injustice,” he told The New York Times in January. “However, the state cannot ignore the overwhelming amount of evidence that has proven Leo Schofield guilty.”

But at the hearing he appeared to pivot a bit. While his predecessors had called Mr. Schofield names, handed grisly autopsy photos of his wife to the panel members and argued he should not be released because he refused to express remorse, Mr. Orr simply asked that “you treat this inmate the same as any other,” in determining whether to grant parole.

And so they did. Longtime prisoners in Florida are routinely required to spend a year or two in a unit designed to prepare them for life in the world, and though the panel denied the request for parole, it did order Mr. Schofield to spend 12 months in a transition program at the Everglades Correctional Institution near Miami. Successful completion of the program is likely to result in his release at his next parole hearing in one year.

Perhaps then he will be able to live a quiet life, as Mr. Adams did after his release. When Mr. Adams died in 2010, at age 61, he had spent a fifth of his life in prison and had come within three days of being executed for a crime he did not commit.

Mr. Schofield, who has spent two-thirds of his life in prison for a crime another man says he committed, should have been sent to the lifers program “in 2020 when Jerry Hill came and insisted Leo would die in prison instead,” Mr. Cupp said. But better now than never, he added.

News reports after the hearing “described it as a negative thing, denied parole, and that’s factually correct,” Mr. Cupp said. “But there were positive things that came out of it. The state attorney’s office clearly signaled that they were backing off.”


Lisa Belkin was a reporter at The Times for more than 25 years and is the author of the forthcoming book “Genealogy of a Murder: Four Generations, Three Families, One Fateful Night.”

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