Prosecutors Say New DNA Evidence in Yogurt Shop Case Doesn't 'Exonerate' Defendant

A lawyer for yogurt shop defendant Robert Springsteen says that re-tested DNA evidence found in a vaginal swab proves his client is not guilty, and that Springsteen should be released from prison.

Attorney Joe James Sawyer in 2001
Attorney Joe James Sawyer in 2001 (by Photo by Jana Birchum)

A lawyer for yogurt shop defendant Robert Springsteen says that re-tested DNA evidence proves his client is not guilty, and that Springsteen should be released from prison. In the writ, filed Wednesday morning, attorney Joe James Sawyer argues that “new” DNA testing of a vaginal swab taken from 13-year-old victim Amy Ayers at the crime scene in 1991 – testing requested by Travis Co. prosecutors – has revealed a previously undetected male DNA profile that does not match any of the four defendants. “This exonerates Defendant Springsteen and makes it clear someone else committed these murders,” Sawyer wrote.

Travis Co. prosecutors Efrain De La Fuente and Gail Van Winkle said they disagree with Sawyer's assertion – the new DNA evidence does not necessarily "exonerate" Springsteen. Moreover, they said they "expect" that they already know the identity of the DNA contributor.

Springsteen is one of four men charged with the grisly quadruple murder of four girls inside a North Austin yogurt shop on Dec. 6, 1991. The girls – Eliza Thomas, 17; sisters Jennifer and Sarah Harbison, 17 and 15; and Ayers – were found dead in a back room of shop, horribly burned in a fire police said was started to cover the crime. It wasn't until 1999 that prosecutors and police announced that they'd finally found the murderers – four men who, at the time of the crime, were also teenagers: Springsteen, who was tried and convicted in 2001; Michael Scott, tried and convicted in 2002; Maurice Pierce – who prosecutors claimed was the "mastermind" behind the murders – was indicted and spent some four years in jail before the D.A.'s office dismissed the charges against him in 2003, citing a lack of evidence. The case against a fourth man, Forrest Welborn, was dismissed after two grand juries failed to indict him.

The convictions of Springsteen and Scott were eventually overturned on appeal because the trial court erred in admitting into evidence portions of statements each had made to police, in violation of each man's Sixth Amendment right to confront witnesses against him. Indeed, the state's cases against Springsteen and Scott have relied almost entirely on the content of their individual "confessions" to police – confessions not supported by any physical evidence found at the scene of the crime. That is not because there wasn't any physical evidence to be found, but because, to date, the state has failed to tie any of that evidence to any of the four they charged with the crime. (For example, fingerprints found at the scene have never been matched to anyone – not the defendants, the four victims, or any other person known to have been in the shop on the day of the crime.)

The revelation that additional male DNA has now been identified would appear to deliver another stunning blow to the state's already wobbly case – or so one might think. But that's not so, say prosecutors De La Fuente and Van Winkle. De La Fuente said Wednesday afternoon that, first, it should be noted that the "state took it upon itself" to submit "numerous samples" for re-testing, in order to "take advantage" of advancements in DNA testing that weren't available at the time of Springsteen's 2001 trial. But the fact that the unidentified male DNA has been found "does not necessarily exonerate" Springsteen (or co-defendant Michael Scott), De La Fuente and Van Winkle said. The male DNA is now being tested against other "known samples" – although neither attorney would reveal whose DNA is being tested – and prosecutors expect those results by the end of the month. Moreover, De La Fuente said that prosecutors suspect that a "match" will come from "someone known to Amy Ayers" – suggesting, perhaps, that the 13-year-old was sexually active at the time of her death, an assertion never before made.

Neither Sawyer nor any of the other defense attorneys working Springsteen's case were available for comment. Indeed, both prosecutors and defense attorneys are bound by a gag order, and De La Fuente said he believes that Sawyer violated that order by filing an unsealed copy of the Springsteen writ – and that is the reason he and Van Winkle were given permission to step outside the order in order to respond to the Chronicle's request for comment, they said.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

Courts, Crime, Robert Springsteen, Joe James Sawyer, yogurt shop murders, Efrain De La Fuente, Gail Van Winkle

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