Acree Defense Says Self-Defense in 2020 Schofield Murder, Attempting to Proffer Character Testimony in Case

By Benjamin Cox on December 20, 2023 at 5:41am

A three-year old murder trial continues to inch closer to movement in Morgan County Circuit Court.

38-year old Kenneth J. Acree of Murrayville was in court for a pretrial motion hearing on Friday. Acree is charged with 3 counts of first-degree murder and a count of concealment of a homicidal death in the shooting death of 32-year-old Robert Schofield in October 2020 near Nortonville.

Acree’s defense attorney, W. Scott Hanken of Springfield filed three motions in limine earlier this month surrounding evidence and language that can be admitted and used at a potential trial. Hanken asked the court to allow evidence of character testimony about Schofield at the trial, which is permissible in a self-defense case. Hanken also wishes to have the prosecution refrain from using the term “victim” in referenc to Schofield in order to not taint any judgment in the case.

Hanken’s motion accuses Schofield of having a volatile personality, chronically carrying a weapon, and of being misogynistic.

Morgan County Assistant State’s Attorney Chad Turner asked to have the court to dismiss the motions on their face due to a lack of specifics: “I don’t know that we got to the merits of the argument [on the character evidence], because my argument was that [Mr. Hanken] was not outlining with enough specificity to determine whether or not what he’s wanting to judge to rule on is admissible. Generally speaking, character testimony or evidence to related to somebody’s character, whether it be a defendant or a witness or a decedent victim, is not admissible. Under certain, very rare circumstances it is [allowed]. One of those is when the claim is self-defense. That is certainly the defendant’s claim in this case. Therefore, he wants to present certain evidence related to the victim.”

Hanken’s argument also included the possibility of calling Ken Acree’s wife, 36-year-old Laura C. Acree, and the decedent’s wife, 29-year-old Sara M. Schofield to the stand to testify on or about the character evidence. Both women are facing charges of concealment of a homicidal death as co-defendants in the case.

Turner says there won’t be offers of immunity for either woman if they decide to cooperate and testify against Kenneth Acree: “Generally speaking, our position is we tell people who are accused of committing a crime; and obviously when we accuse them, we strongly believe that we would be able to prove it; we tell them, ‘Listen, if you want to cooperate with us, we will accept your cooperation. We promise you nothing other than to give you consideration for the fact that you cooperated.’ What that results in down the road, we are not going to give you any specifics on that.”

Visiting 7th Circuit Judge Ryan Cadigan agreed with the state’s arguments that Hanken’s motion on character witnesses needed to bare more specifics as to what actual testimony, times, and dates will be proffered. Judge Cadigan reserved a ruling on the motions on Friday, giving Hanken time to revise and resubmit the motions, allowing both sides to argue the motions by brief. Hanken also accused the state of not proffering evidence or providing discovery on conversations about the character evidence had between the state’s attorney’s office and Laura Acree’s and Sara Schofield’s defense attorneys.

Judge Cadigan admonished both sides for what he saw as a lack of communication. Judge Cadigan, noting that both sides of the case had seasoned attorneys who are expected to know the rights and privileges of evidence discovery and cooperation as laid out in Illinois and federal case law, needed to make the pretrial hearings more efficient and expedient ahead of a potential trial.

The next pretrial hearing is scheduled for January 12th.