Somebody Has to Die
The Yogurt Shop Murder Trial Headlines Shout 'Guilty!' -- But Did the Prosecution Make Its Case?
By Jordan Smith, Fri., June 15, 2001
At 4pm Wednesday, May 30, the packed state district courtroom of Judge Mike Lynch was wrapped in tense silence. After nearly 13 hours of deliberations over two days, the seven-man, five-woman jury charged with deciding the guilt or innocence of Robert Burns Springsteen IV had reached a decision.
Springsteen, 26, is the first of three defendants to be tried for the notorious 1991 murders of four teenage girls in a North Austin I Can't Believe It's Yogurt! shop. On December 6, 1991, Eliza Thomas, 17; Amy Ayers, 13; and sisters Jennifer and Sarah Harbison, 17 and 15, were found inside the shop -- stripped, bound, gagged, shot in the head, and horribly burned in a fire police said was started to cover the crime. Maurice Pierce, 25, and Michael Scott, 26, have also been indicted for the murders and are awaiting trial. Charges against another suspect, Forrest Welborn, 25, were dropped in 1999, after two Travis County grand juries failed to indict him.
Just before Springsteen entered the courtroom to hear the jury's decision, court sources said, defense lawyer Berkley Bettis had gone in to speak with him. The jurors are crying, he told his client -- that's not a good sign.
At 4:05pm, Judge Lynch read the jury's verdict: guilty, of capital murder in the death of Amy Ayers. (This Springsteen prosecution concerned only the murder of Ayers.) A collective gasp, followed by choked sobs, came from the gallery, where the victims' families had been sitting for the three weeks of testimony. Springsteen looked straight ahead. In the jury box, the men and women who had judged Springsteen's fate were also crying, covering their eyes and mouths, consoling each other.
But that wasn't the worst news Springsteen would hear that week. On Friday, June 1, the same jurors returned after nearly 11 hours of deliberation to deliver Springsteen's punishment. Under Texas law, there are only two possible penalties for capital murder: life in prison -- with a possibility of parole after 40 years -- or death by lethal injection.
During the punishment phase, during which each side has the opportunity to call witnesses, defense lawyers Bettis and Joe James Sawyer called no one -- no one -- to plead for their client's life. Defending this puzzling strategy, Sawyer said that after prosecutors called Amy Ayers' father, who testified emotionally about his family's loss (eliciting an emotional reaction from more than one juror), it would've been difficult -- at best -- to call any defense witnesses. In the face of execution, the defense chose silence.
On Friday afternoon, Springsteen again stood virtually motionless in front of the court and, again, jurors were crying. Their sentence: death, by lethal injection. After the sentence was delivered, reporters who were seeking Springsteen's reaction approached Sawyer. "Not guilty," replied Sawyer, "that's what he says." Indeed, for nearly 10 years, this is what Springsteen has said over and over: not guilty.
At a press conference that Friday afternoon, Pam Ayers, mother of the youngest yogurt shop victim, 13-year-old Amy, thanked Austinites for their "prayers and support" over the past nine and a half years. Later, District Attorney Ronnie Earle told the Austin American-Statesman, "We are doing our job, and we altogether seek justice and truth."
Still -- after more than nine years of investigation by the Austin Police Department, aided at times by federal investigators -- many questions remain. Have "justice and truth" in fact been served? The court has certainly ruled. Yet for those who sat through the entire trial (especially those segments of the trial that were withheld from the jurors), it seems not so certain that Robert Springsteen participated in the yogurt shop murders -- or more precisely, whether this trial laid that question to rest, beyond a reasonable doubt.
With two trials -- those of Scott and Pierce -- yet to come, questions asked but not answered (as well as many additional questions that remain unasked) are bound to come up again. There are questions about the evidence (or lack thereof) linking the suspects to the crime; about the APD's interrogation tactics and the validity of the confessions they obtained from both Springsteen and Scott; about the prosecutors' tactics at trial; and about the ability of Springsteen's lawyers to mount a sufficient defense.
On Friday, Dec. 6, 1991, just before midnight, a police officer on patrol near Northcross Mall reported smoke coming from the rear of the I Can't Believe It's Yogurt! shop located in a strip mall just down the street. According to media reports at the time, nearly 50 firefighters responded to the call. After extinguishing the flames they made a grisly discovery: Four girls lay dead inside the shop, three of them stacked like wood in the back room, charred nearly to the bone. APD Detective John Jones was the first investigator to respond. "Wholesale carnage," he told reporters after he'd been inside. "I looked in there and, 'Oh my God.'"
A local CBS news crew was out riding along with Jones that evening and remained at the scene, filming the first responses of the officers and investigators. Portions of the tapes were played in court during Springsteen's trial. They showed a protracted bustle of activity: firefighters going in and out of the shop repeatedly, hours after the fire had been extinguished; Austin Fire Department paramedics and arson investigators entering and exiting the shop; the arrival and departure of the Travis County medical examiner. And finally, at almost 4am -- nearly four hours after the call was put in -- the arrival of the Department of Public Safety crime scene investigators (at the time, APD did not have its own crime scene investigation unit).
It was this gap in time, four hours of movement and disruption inside the shop before anyone arrived to "process" the scene for evidence, that helped create the chaos that would plague the APD investigators for the next nine years. DPS investigator Irma Rios testified at trial that the efforts of the crime scene investigators were not coordinated, that they failed to retain items from the shop for evidence -- including an aluminum ladder and other items that were melted by the fire -- and that they even failed to process certain areas of the property for physical evidence, including the shop's bathrooms, the front door, and a large Dumpster situated just outside the shop's back door. "No one ever pulled out everything that was in the Dumpster," Rios testified. "We just looked at what was on top." When asked by Sawyer whether the investigators had plotted the interior of the shop in a grid -- standard practice for a thorough culling of physical evidence -- Rios said the investigators had not done so.
In the end, not one speck of physical evidence was logged by investigators that would link any of the three defendants to the scene of the crime. There were several latent fingerprints found on the lid of a cash register drawer, and at least five hairs were recovered from the girls' bodies or items of their clothing. But after analysis of the fingerprints by a FBI expert and DNA analysis of the hairs by a private company, none of this evidence was linked to any of the victims, the defendants, or any of the other yogurt shop employees. "There is DNA that cannot be attributed to the four victims or the four suspects," DNA specialist William Watson told the jury. Furthermore, he testified, the unmatched hairs came from more than one source. "Persons. These are from more than one individual."
Compounding the lack of evidence was the unfettered activity at the scene that Friday night. The CBS cameras recorded what appeared to be unregulated access to the shop, a notion that defense lawyer Sawyer harped on while examining Detective Jones on the stand. "Sgt. Jones, is there a log in existence [that] reflect[s] everyone who went in and out of the crime scene?" Sawyer asked. "It's in the database," Jones replied. However, no log was ever produced as evidence during the trial by either the district attorneys or the defense. Upon further questioning, Jones told Sawyer: "There were enough people in [the yogurt shop on Dec. 6] that we couldn't control everything that was going out the doors." Indeed, in many of the photographs taken at the shop, numerous firefighters and other officials can be seen standing around in the background.
In the days and months that followed the crime, the open access became an evidentiary problem, as investigators were inundated with tips and confessions from people who were giving details of the crime scene that police had hoped to keep secret. In fact, police testified, the list of "core facts" -- crime scene details kept from the public as a method to confirm the real culprits -- was getting smaller and smaller. "Initially, information we would normally keep [confidential] was coming back to us with such frequency that we had to cross it off the list," Jones testified.
And among other things, it is this leaking of important details over the years that sheds a suspect light on the only pieces of evidence prosecutors have to try the yogurt shop defendants: the two confessions obtained by APD officers from Springsteen and Scott.
The interrogation room on the second floor of the Charleston, W.Va., police department is a cramped space, sparsely furnished with a table and three chairs. There's a clock mounted on one wall, placed there by APD detectives and outfitted with a video camera, which recorded -- sometimes poorly -- the conversation that took place on Sept. 15, 1999. During the interrogation, Robert Springsteen is sitting in a straight-backed chair across from the door. Detective Robert Merrill alternately sits in front of the door or with his legs propped on the wall, blocking the room's only exit. Detective Ron Lara -- and occasionally Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms federal agent Chuck Meyer -- sits across the table from Springsteen, leaning in and sometimes yelling at him, just inches from his face.
This was at least the third time detectives had interviewed Springsteen in the eight years since the yogurt shop murders. Yet even after three weeks of exhaustive trial testimony last month -- which largely centered on this confession -- it remains wholly unclear what made up the substance of the previous interviews. What details had Springsteen been told about the crime by other detectives? What had he heard and read in media reports? What had he heard in the days after the crime from other teens that hung around the Northcross Mall? What crime scene photos had he been shown? Defense attorneys asked these questions during the trial without receiving any very convincing answers.
Nonetheless, after nearly four hours of interrogation that day in 1999, during which Springsteen adamantly denied any involvement in the horrific 1991 crime -- as he had done for the previous eight years -- he finally began to break down in front of the police and admitted to being involved in the murders. "I don't know whether this is true or not, or whether I'm fooling myself," Springsteen told his interrogators. "I'm so confused ..."
When asked at trial about the initial interview in December 1991, Jones said that both Springsteen and co-defendant Michael Scott (who also confessed to police, on Sept. 14, 1999, after 18 hours of interrogation) were subsequently "inactivated" as witnesses and/or suspects. "We get to a certain point with some suspects where we can't pursue them any more," he testified. "At that time we ran into a dead end."
So, were the 1999 confessions and subsequent arrests the product of dogged police work, finally producing admissions by Scott and Springsteen to details of the crime that only the killers would know? Possibly.
Unfortunately, at least concerning Springsteen's statement, that doesn't seem to be the case -- at least not beyond a reasonable doubt. First, Springsteen never said anything about the girls being bound and gagged, or about the rear room of the shop being set on fire. Detective Merrill testified that this is so because Springsteen terminated the interview before the detectives could get to that point. Yet Springsteen also told the detectives that Amy Ayers had been shot first by a .380-caliber gun -- which he fired -- then, when she didn't immediately die, that she was shot a second time with a .22-caliber gun. This clearly was not possible, since medical experts testified that, while Amy had been shot with both weapons, it was the .380 that ultimately killed her. Travis County Medical Examiner Thomas Brown also testified that Ayers was also strangled with a cloth ligature. Springsteen never mentioned this either.
Springsteen did relate certain details that police said were never made public, and that police said also matched Scott's confession. Specifically, Springsteen said the second weapon used in the crime was a .380-caliber semi-automatic; that Scott had tried unsuccessfully to rape one of the girls; that while casing the shop earlier in the day, Springsteen had propped open the rear door with an empty cigarette pack or a small rock; and that after the crime, Scott had thrown up over a bridge.
At first, these small but telling details in Springsteen's confession might seem convincing. Yet as it turns out, there are other confessions -- most of these unacknowledged in the courtroom and unknown to the jury -- that also mention some of the details police insist were never made public. Although a court-imposed gag order remains in force, and restricts detailed discussion of the murders until the trials of all three defendants have ended, sources close to the case told the Chronicle that there were many confessions -- at least 50 separate confessions, made to police. Some of these are described as also containing convincing details -- and many, to this day, have not been pursued by investigators. "That's where the dynamite is," said one source.
In court, defense lawyers Bettis and Sawyer were able to introduce only two such confessions into evidence. "Not to show that they're true," Sawyer told the court. "On the contrary, to show they were made by somebody with detailed knowledge of the crime." The statements admitted, while obviously false, did exhibit a striking amount of crime scene detail. A confession given by Alex Brionnes (who was already wanted in San Antonio for raping a woman and setting her on fire) told police in 1992 that the murders started off as a robbery; that the girls were bound, gagged, and raped then shot; that there were two guns used and the second "looked like" a silver semi-automatic; and that napkins and cardboard boxes were stacked on the bodies before the fire was set. All of these details correspond to the crime, and were supposedly confidential.
Similarly, in another statement introduced by the defense, Shawn Smith -- described in court as an Austin resident who in 1992 voluntarily came forward to confess to the crime -- told police that he and some friends arrived at the shop after hours; that they stripped and bound the girls; that one of the guns used was "an automatic of some sort"; that the girls were stacked in the back room and that lighter fluid had been used to start the blaze. Police determined that these confessions were false because aside from these details, there were other well-known aspects of the crime (like the number of victims) that the confessors didn't know. Still, if the confessions of Brionnes and Smith -- along with dozens of others collected over the years -- were substantially false, how was it that they contained so much presumably "private" detail? On the stand, APD Detective Mike Huckabay -- also one of the initial investigators of the murders -- readily agreed with Sawyer's statement that the police department "quickly became so enmeshed in problems with people coming in with too much detail, things they shouldn't have known."
"That was pretty much it, yes sir," Huckabay replied.
At one point in the investigation, Huckabay testified, so many crime scene details were returning in the form of random confessions that the investigators thought there might even be a leak within the police department. The investigators also admitted they had called in nearly 60 local teenagers for questioning, and that the teens then were talking among themselves, further disseminating the crime scene information.
So, what made Springsteen, Pierce, Scott, and Welborn the principal -- and finally exclusive -- targets of the investigation?
Detective Paul Johnson, who took over the investigation in 1996, has said the primary influence was the initial contact made with Maurice Pierce just over a week after the murders -- contact that also led to the initial interviews with Springsteen and Scott. On Dec. 14, 1991, Pierce was picked up at Northcross Mall carrying a .22-caliber pistol and 16 bullets tucked into his jeans. At the time, he was taken in and questioned by Detective Hector Polanco. Pierce said in a written statement that the .22 he was carrying at Northcross Mall had been used by his friend Forrest Welborn to commit the yogurt shop murders. Welborn was questioned and denied any involvement, but did say that he and Pierce, along with Springsteen and Scott, had gone to San Antonio several days later in a stolen Nissan Pathfinder. As a result, both Springsteen and Scott were questioned.
It was the .22, Detective Johnson said, that caught his attention again in 1996 -- police knew a .22-caliber gun had been used in the crime. However, experts testified at trial that the .22-caliber gun Pierce was carrying that day, which was seized by police, does not match the gun that fired the bullets that killed the four girls. Indeed, at a pretrial hearing in May 2000, Johnson admitted that he had been told by an APD ballistics expert as far back as January 1999 -- months before the defendants were arrested -- that Pierce's .22 did not match the gun used to shoot the girls. To this day, neither of the murder weapons has ever been found.
Then there's the Polanco factor.
It is safe to say that Detective Hector Polanco has a reputation for coercing information out of suspects. Most notably, Polanco took the statement of Christopher Ochoa, which was used to convict him and his friend Richard Danziger, for a 1988 rape and murder it was later determined they didn't commit. The two men were finally released from jail earlier this year. Ochoa's confession to Polanco was extremely detailed -- yet completely false. It was Polanco's interview with Pierce that put the boys on the suspect list to begin with. (According to defense attorney Sawyer, Polanco most likely also conducted the initial interview with Springsteen.) During the trial, Polanco testified that he has never coerced information from a suspect, "though I've been accused of it."
Assistant District Attorney Efraim de la Fuente made it clear while examining Detective Huckabay that Polanco had in fact coerced false admissions from Alex Brionnes, whose confession Sawyer introduced for its inclusion of detailed crime information. Curiously, it seemed the D.A. was making the defense's argument: that APD officers had fed people crime scene details, in effect that APD was jeopardizing the integrity of its own investigation.
"At any time did Alex Brionnes say, 'I was threatened and told what to say?'" de la Fuente asked Huckabay. "Yes," Huckabay replied. De la Fuente continued: "And didn't he say he'd only gotten his details from Hector Polanco?" Again, Huckabay replied yes. Polanco's involvement in the Brionnes and Pierce interrogations -- along with the infamous Ochoa confession -- may well call into question the validity of any information obtained through Detective Polanco regarding the involvement of Springsteen and the others in the yogurt shop crime. Yet last week APD Chief Stan Knee told K-EYE News: "There is absolutely no comparison between [those] two cases. Not only did the jury convict [Springsteen], but they gave him the ultimate conviction [sic] for this case."
Knee had apparently forgotten that a jury also convicted Ochoa and Danziger.
It may seem hard to imagine an innocent person confessing to a crime that he or she did not commit, says Dr. Richard Ofshe, a professor of social psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, "but it happens, with improper, illegal use of interrogation tactics." Over strong objections by the prosecution, Ofshe was called by the defense to testify at Springsteen's trial. Judge Lynch ended up curtailing the extent to which Ofshe could testify in front of the jurors (one of several rulings over the course of the trial that defense lawyers said had the effect of severely limiting their ability to mount an effective defense). Ofshe was allowed to discuss, generally, the tactics used by police during interrogations, but was not allowed to weigh in on whether there was any coercion demonstrated by police in Springsteen's 1999 confession tapes. That judgment, Lynch said, was strictly up to the jurors. In the end, Ofshe's testimony was cut short after repeated objections by the three-lawyer prosecution team.
Confession or Coercion?
Outside the courtroom, however, Ofshe told reporters he saw clear signs that Springsteen's confession was coerced. "Tactics were used that put him in a place of being considered the principal target [of the investigation]," he said. "Or, it was communicated to him that [if he cooperated with the police] that he'd be considered a victim. So, Springsteen was put in a position where he had to choose." Ofshe was bewildered as to why he wasn't allowed to testify concerning the confession in front of the jury, especially, he said, since he has testified similarly in front of Texas juries in the past. "I was severely limited in the testimony I might have given," he said. "I know what happens in interrogations, and I can help a jury evaluate it fairly. Because, if a jury understands how interrogations work, then they can understand those things that elicit false confessions."
Why wouldn't the prosecutors want him to testify? "My guess would be the politics [of the case]," Ofshe said. Was Springsteen coerced? "In my opinion," said Ofshe, "yes."
Prosecutors were also successful in barring other testimony that could have suggested an alternate theory as to what happened on Dec. 6, 1991, and thereby create further reasonable doubt in the jurors' minds as to Springsteen's guilt. Of the dozens of false confessions said to exist, defense attorneys were allowed to introduce only two. They were also barred from introducing testimony that suggested that one of Texas' most notorious criminals might be behind the murders. Sawyer and Bettis sought to introduce evidence that serial killer Kenneth McDuff -- executed in 1998 -- was in the area of the yogurt shop that Friday night in 1991. A map found in his car, they said, showed directions that would've landed him within three blocks of the shop. Moreover, Sawyer said, a woman at Northcross Mall said she'd seen McDuff there that night. Lynch ruled that the McDuff evidence was hearsay and would not be admitted. While the McDuff material does seem like a long shot, Sawyer told reporters, "This is nothing but what we've been trying to do since the beginning -- the collection of other confessions."
Most crippling to the defense -- and most likely to become the basis of an appeal -- was Lynch's decision to allow the prosecution to introduce portions of Michael Scott's confession, which were read to the jury. This decision may have violated Springsteen's right to cross-examine witnesses against him. Sawyer said he filed a 450-page objection, citing several Supreme Court decisions that found constitutional violations in similar cases, but Lynch allowed the state to introduce the confession anyway. Following the trial, after the jury delivered its death sentence to Springsteen, juror Gunther Goetz told the Austin American-Statesman that the jurors considered Scott's confession the "key" piece of evidence. "That really struck a chord," Goetz said.
"The rulings came down in such a way that we were just stripped of our defenses," Sawyer said. Other veteran trial attorneys agreed that the heady emotional politics of this case -- as in similar capital cases -- often seem to effect judges' rulings. "I can tell you that if the state needed to include some evidence, [the court] wasn't going to exclude it," said Austin attorney Joe Turner. "They'll leave that for an appeals court to figure out."
If prosecutors are so certain of Springsteen's guilt, why would they so vociferously attempt to bar the admission of other confessions and the testimony of Ofshe; while simultaneously fighting to admit evidence that, quite possibly, violates Springsteen's constitutional rights?
Prosecutors have consistently declined to comment on the case, citing the gag order, yet perhaps the answer is simple: Unless the confessions were allowed to stand alone, there would be no way to convince the jury to convict.
Perhaps there is one other way: Remind the jurors, with repeated and frightening intensity, of the horrible nature of the crime. "There's no question that when you have a case like this, the burden of proof seems to lessen for the state," said Turner, who sat through portions of Springsteen's trial. "It really didn't seem that there was any relation or connection [between Springsteen and the crime], and in the first week you could see that there wasn't any evidence connecting him either."
Blood on the Courtroom Floor
In fact, the entire first week of the prosecution's case consisted entirely of reminding jurors (and the families for that matter) again and again, with graphic photos, charred pieces of the girls' clothing and sooty personal effects recovered from the scene, that this was an amazingly horrific crime. The redundant reminders overwhelmed the lack of physical evidence. The endless stream of photographs shown to the jurors seemed to have their intended effect: There were tears, horrified expressions, and postures of recoil throughout the jury box. But does the gruesome nature of the crime demonstrate anything about the guilt of the suspect at the defense table? "Nothing," Sawyer said. "They said, 'Here, let me show you these grisly pictures again and again.' And I agree with them, emotionally. But what you've got to be able to do is say, 'Is any of this fair? Is any of this evidence?'"
Ultimately, the prosecutorial motive may be frighteningly simple: For a crime so brutal and remorseless, someone has to pay.
But does a capital conviction that leaves so many unanswered questions -- and so many uncertainties suggesting ample grounds for appeal -- provide the resolution a death sentence supposedly requires? Does the Springsteen conviction truly begin to lay to rest the horror of the yogurt shop murders?
Since the court's gag order was imposed in late 1999, the families of the murdered girls have said little to the media. After the jury delivered its guilty verdict on May 30, Barbara Ayres (mother of sisters Jennifer and Sarah Harbison) was surrounded by reporters and cameras. A reporter asked: "Is this what you wanted?" Ayres wiped her eyes. "We wanted some kind of an ending," was all she said. Last April, on the CBS newsmagazine 48 Hours, Amy's parents Bob and Pam Ayers said (in an interview recorded years ago) that no end would ever erase their loss. "Pam hates this word 'closure,'" Bob Ayers told the reporter. "All we're ever going to get out of this is a little relief."
Got something to say? The Chronicle welcomes opinion pieces on any topic from the community. Submit yours now at austinchronicle.com/opinion.