The Austin Chronicle

Grounds for Appeal?

By Jordan Smith, June 15, 2001, News

On June 1 the jury for the first yogurt shop murder trial handed Robert Burns Springsteen IV a death sentence for his involvement in the notorious 1991 murders. Yet after three weeks of testimony, numerous questions remain that may present grounds for appeal, including whether Springsteen's lawyers were given enough latitude to mount an adequate defense, or indeed had managed to do so.

Below is a partial list of the issues likely to provide grounds for subsequent appeal by Springsteen's attorneys:

  • Over strong objections by the defense, Judge Mike Lynch ruled that portions of a confession by co-defendant Michael Scott could be read to the jurors. Since Scott is facing prosecution for the same murders later this year, he could not be compelled to testify in Springsteen's trial. As a result, Springsteen lawyer Joe Sawyer said, Lynch's decision violated Springsteen's right, guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, to cross-examine witnesses against him.

  • Judge Lynch barred the defense's request to introduce most or all of the other yogurt shop murder "confessions" obtained by police. Sources close to the case told the Chronicle that police collected more than 50 confessions, many of which contained evidentiary details from the crime scene that police were supposed to have kept confidential -- in order to confirm accurate confessions.

  • The three-lawyer prosecution team of Robert Smith, Darla Davis, and Efraim de la Fuente, and police detectives who investigated the murders, have repeatedly said that Robert Springsteen raped Amy Ayers before she was killed. However, there is apparently no physical evidence that Amy was raped. The "rape kit" results (swabs taken of the genital and rectal areas) were negative. Furthermore, Travis County medical examiner Thomas Brown testified that there were no trauma or abrasions evident on Ayers' genitals or rectum. Medical experts told the Chronicle that it would be unlikely that no trauma would be present, particularly if the 13-year-old Ayers was a virgin at the time of the assault. One nurse, trained in administering the rape kit tests, said that whether abrasions or other evidence of trauma would exist is highly individual. "That is why the rape kits are so important," the source said. During Springsteen's interrogation, Detective Ron Lara repeatedly yelled at Springsteen that he should "just admit you did it [raped her], Rob. Say it, say it." Springsteen finally does. But if there was no evidence that Ayers was raped and Springsteen confessed to raping her -- after the police told him to -- what else did he admit to upon police suggestion? "That's exactly the point," said Sawyer.

  • Judge Lynch also severely limited the testimony of defense expert witness Dr. Richard Ofshe, a social psychologist who specializes in police interrogation techniques and how they can create false confessions when used "improperly." Lynch said the judgment of whether Springsteen's confession was coerced was the jury's to make. However, Ofshe said he sought only to offer information that would help the jurors make their evaluation.
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