Yogurt Shop DNA Saga Continues, Pt. 3

Is there enough evidence to set Robert Springsteen free?

A memorial on Anderson Lane for the four yogurt shop victims.
A memorial on Anderson Lane for the four yogurt shop victims.

Travis Co. District Judge Mike Lynch said Thursday afternoon that he would decide by Monday (June 23) whether circumstances warrant a reduction in bond that would allow defendant Robert Springsteen to be released from jail pending his retrial in the infamous yogurt shop murder case.

The current legal dispute is, essentially, a battle of DNA experts, although in the Thursday hearing they were represented only by the opposing attorneys.

The latest chapter of the seemingly endless saga began back in March 2008, when new DNA testing by Fairfax Lab (Virginia) working for the state revealed an unknown male DNA profile on vaginal swabs taken from the youngest victim, 13-year-old Amy Ayers, murdered with three other young women in a North Austin yogurt shop in December of 1991. The DNA profile from Ayers’ body does not match Springsteen nor co-defendant Michael Scott, nor two other men – Maurice Pierce, who prosecutors previously dubbed the “mastermind” behind the grisly murder before dismissing all charges against him in 2003, and Forrest Welborn who prosecutors said acted as a lookout, but against whom two grand juries failed to return an indictment. Nor, it turns out, does the profile match any of more than 100 people that the state has tested it against. To date, the donor of that DNA remains unidentified.

That revelation, however, sparked yet another round of DNA testing, undertaken by the defense. In court Thursday afternoon, Joe James Sawyer, one of Springsteen’s attorneys said that those additional tests, completed by experts with the company Orchid Cellmark (Dallas and elsewhere), have revealed two additional unknown male DNA profiles – one on vaginal swabs taken from Sarah Harbison, 15, and another found on a ligature removed from Eliza Thomas, 17. A vaginal swab taken from the fourth victim, Sarah’s older sister Jennifer, 17, matches the unknown DNA found inside Amy Ayers. (Moreover, the swabs taken from the Harbison sisters are a mixture of male DNA, Sawyer said, which includes a profile consistent with Jennifer’s boyfriend – who was not, and is not, a suspect in the case.) The startling results not only exclude Springsteen – to a “scientific certainty” – from having left any iota of DNA at the scene, but also exonerates him from having participated in the grisly quadruple murder, Sawyer said. Springsteen has been incarcerated for nearly 10 years for a crime he did not commit, Sawyer argued, and should now be released.

But Assistant District Attorney Gail Van Winkle argued that the results of the new and more precise DNA testing do not mean that either Springsteen or Scott are innocent – rather, the unknown male profile found on the vaginal swab taken from Ayers’ body suggests only that there is, perhaps, one additional suspect out there whose identity is still a mystery to prosecutors.

To review the defense’s test results, prosecutors turned not to another DNA lab, which seemingly would've undertaken a round of DNA tests to either confirm and duplicate or refute the work of Orchid Cellmark, but instead turned to academician Mitchell Holland from Penn State University, who reviewed the results obtained by Orchid Cellmark and Fairfax. Van Winkle argued that while Holland agrees there is an unknown male DNA profile among the evidence – and that the male unknown found inside Ayers is consistent with the profile found inside Jennifer Harbison – that is where the state’s agreement with the defense results ends.

According to Van Winkle, Holland’s opinion is that the sample found on Sarah Harbison was too small to allow any conclusions about its source. Similarly, Van Winkle proposed that the profile found on Eliza Thomas’ ligature could be the result of cross-contamination that occurred back in 1991 at the Travis Co. Medical Examiner's Office. (This seems an odd conclusion since prosecutors have already tested so many dozens of people in an attempt to match to the first unknown profile found in Ayers, including the former M.E. and members of the office staff. If they thought there was contamination on the Thomas sample, it would seem logical that they would check the possible unknown profile against the individuals they now have on file.) In sum, she said, the state disagrees with the conclusion that there are “multiple unknown” DNA profiles. “There is only one unknown male donor,” she said. And if there is indeed just one unknown male, Van Winkle argued, there is no reason to believe that Springsteen was not involved, and thus no compelling reason to release him on bond.

While there may be some disagreement over how many unknown males were involved, there is no doubt now that at least one unknown male left DNA found inside two of the suspects -- and that directly casts further doubt on the reliability of the state’s case against Springsteen and Scott.

The case against Springsteen and Scott is built almost entirely upon separate “confessions” each man gave to Austin Police detectives in 1999. After hours of questioning, including repeated questions about whether he’d raped Ayers, Springsteen finally admitted that he had. But each defendant ultimately recanted his confession and during each man’s original trial (in 2001 for Springsteen and 2002 for Scott), defense attorneys sought to introduce testimony that the statements were the product of coercive techniques known to produce false confessions. The state balked at that, arguing that similarities between the two confessions proved they were reliable. (Two courts of appeal ultimately disagreed with the way the state went about proving that similarity and sent the cases back for retrial.)

Although prosecutors – including D.A. Rosemary Lehmberg – have said the confessions given by Springsteen and Scott remain strong evidence of guilt, the lack of any DNA evidence matching Springsteen now casts serious doubt on the reliability of a key part of his confession, namely that he raped Amy Ayers. Lehmberg, who attended the Thursday’s hearing, remained (at least publicly) unmoved, saying afterward, “I think the evidence speaks for itself.”

The DNA experts themselves did not testify in court Thursday – their conclusions were distilled into affidavits and filed under seal with the court – but the arguments offered by the attorneys as proxy offer a glimpse into the issues that are sure to dominate the upcoming retrial of each defendant. Scott’s trial is set to begin July 6; a date for Springsteen’s retrial has not yet been set.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
More Crime
UPDATED: Pitonyak Denied New Trial
UPDATED: Pitonyak Denied New Trial
But defense says it has new evidence Hall responsible for Cave murder

Jordan Smith, Oct. 16, 2013

Austin Police: Who Killed Matthew Casey?
Austin Police: Who Killed Matthew Casey?
Looking for suspects in Austin's 23rd murder

Jordan Smith, Sept. 12, 2012

More Courts
Texas' Big, Bad Week for Voter Suppression and Gerrymandering
Texas' Big, Bad Week for Voter Suppression and Gerrymandering
Within two days, courts reject second election map, voter ID bill

Richard Whittaker, Aug. 25, 2017

Lecturers Sue to Block Campus Carry
Lecturers Sue to Block Campus Carry
Do Texas concealed handgun rules break the Second Amendment?

Richard Whittaker, July 7, 2016

More by Jordan Smith
'Chrome Underground' Goes Classic Car Hunting
'Chrome Underground' Goes Classic Car Hunting
Motoreum's Yusuf & Antonio talk about the biz and their reality TV debut

May 22, 2014

APD Brass Shifts Up, Down, Across
APD Brass Shifts Up, Down, Across
Musical chairs at Downtown HQ

May 9, 2014

KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

Crime, Courts, Cops, yogurt shop murders, Robert Springsteen, Michael Scott, Joe James Sawyer, Rosemanry Lehmberg, Gail Van Winkle

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Updates for SXSW 2019

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle