Yogurt Shop DNA Saga Continues

Defense attorney Joe James Sawyer says D.A.'s office is ignoring science

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

A lawyer for yogurt shop defendant Robert Springsteen said March 17 that prosecutors are ignoring scientific evidence that proves his client is innocent, and that he hopes to have a hearing soon on his request to have his client released from jail on bond, pending his retrial for the grisly 1991 quadruple murder at a North Austin yogurt shop.

Attorney Joe James Sawyer told reporters Tuesday that he will request within a week that a date be set for a bond hearing. If granted, Sawyer said the hearing could happen within 45 days. Sawyer spoke to reporters after meeting with fellow defense attorneys -- including lawyers for Springsteen's co-defendant Michael Scott -- prosecutors and Travis Co. District Judge Mike Lynch for more than an hour in Lynch's office. "If today stands for anything, it stands for the [proposition] that the Travis Co. District Attorney's Office simply doesn't believe that science stands for anything," Sawyer said.

The defense attorneys have been going round and round with Travis Co. Assistant District Attorneys Gail Van Winkle and Efrain De La Fuente over the meaning of the results of additional forensic testing that revealed, a year ago, unknown male DNA found inside the youngest victim, 13-year-old Amy Ayers. The DNA does not match any of the original four suspects (Springsteen, Scott, Maurice Pierce and Forrest Welborn) nor has it been matched to any other individual known to be at the scene of the crime on Dec. 6, 1991 -- including numerous public safety workers, despite prosecutors' initial assurance that the contributor of the DNA was likely someone already known to the state.

That was nearly a year ago, but still the donor has not been identified. Meanwhile, further DNA testing -- of vaginal swabs taken from the other victims, sisters Sarah and Jennifer Harbison and their friend Eliza Thomas, as well as ligatures used to bind the girls during the crime -- has revealed at least one additional unknown male profile. Sources say there are now at least two, and possibly three, unknown male donors found on DNA taken from the crime scene.

Defense attorneys say discovery of the unknown DNA cripples the state's case against Springsteen and Scott (as well as any remaining suspicions about Pierce -- against whom charges were dismissed, for lack of evidence, in 2003 -- and Welborn, who was discarded as a suspect after two grand juries failed to indict him), but that the state steadfastly maintains that it has enough evidence to go forward with a second trial.

The state's case is based almost exclusively on "confessions" Springsteen and Scott each made to Austin Police, which both men say were coerced by investigators. Each man has recanted the substance of his confession, and both insist they are innocent.

Indeed, there is no physical evidence that ties either man to the murders.

Arguably, prosecutors are now left with less to work with than they had the first time around -- and with the discovery of the previously undetected DNA, defense attorneys say it is time for their clients to be set free. They say the presence of the unknown male DNA confirms that their clients are, in fact, innocent.

The prosecutors' seeming reluctance to step back and reconsider its posture in the case stands in stark contrast to the approaches taken by D.A.'s in Dallas and Houston. In Dallas, DNA evidence has has cleared more than a dozen men who were wrongly convicted, and last week Harris Co. D.A. Pat Lykos criticized police, prosecutors and defense attorneys in the case of Ricardo Rachell who was convicted and spent five years in prison for sexual assault of a child before DNA testing cleared him. Lykos vowed last week that DNA testing will be conducted in every case where it is available, before prosecutors take the case to trial.

In the case of Springsteen and Scott, however, prosecutors have downplayed the significance of the DNA evidence, instead relying on the substance of the confessions to confirm guilt. But whether those confessions are actually reliable isn't clear. Indeed, during his confession Springsteen says he sexually assaulted Ayers, yet no evidence exists to confirm that account -- instead, only DNA from an unknown male has been found. Further, during a meeting of the state's Criminal Justice Integrity Unit in January, false confession expert Richard Leo, a lawyer and University of San Francisco professor, told the assembled judges, attorneys and lawmakers that he believes strongly that Scott's statements were the product of police coercion. "Michael Scott is a perfect example of this," Leo concluded.

D.A. Rosemary Lehmberg did not immediately return a phone call requesting comment.

Still, Sawyer says prosecutors have signaled that they will try Springsteen and Scott again. 'The only thing the state has warmed up to, as far as I can tell, is a fear that the earth is flat," Sawyer told reporters. "The state is going to take these cases to trial, no matter what."

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