As the jury of nine women and three men filed into the courtroom Sunday afternoon, the tear-stained faces of a handful of jurors told the grim fate of Michael Scott. Nevertheless, when District Judge Mike Lynch took the verdict from the bailiff and read the word "guilty," the entire room seemed to flinch (see sidebar, upper right).
Then came more tears. Parents and friends of the four girls killed in the 1991 yogurt shop slayings stood and embraced. On the other side of the aisle, Scott's family members remained seated behind the defense table and wept, long after the courtroom had been cleared.
The jurors appeared worn and spent after more than 22 hours of deliberations, but they returned to court Monday morning for a more daunting task: to decide whether the 28-year-old Scott should die by lethal injection or spend the rest of his life in prison. Jurors had deliberated throughout the weekend before finding Scott guilty of capital murder in the shooting death of 13-year-old Amy Ayers during a robbery of the North Austin I Can't Believe It's Yogurt Shop. Eliza Thomas, 17, and sisters Sarah and Jennifer Harbison, 15 and 17, were also killed, and Scott could stand trial for those deaths as well.
On Sunday, Jeannine Scott's sorrow turned to anger as she vowed to keep fighting for her husband's release. Outspoken and articulate, Scott's wife has long maintained the innocence of her husband and three others charged with the crime. All four were arrested in 1999 after police revisited old case files. Detectives subsequently obtained confessions from both Scott and Robert Springsteen IV, the first to stand trial. He was convicted last year and sentenced to die. Another suspect, Maurice Pierce, is in jail awaiting trial. Charges were dropped against a fourth man, Forrest Welborn, after two grand juries declined to issue an indictment.
All four men were teenagers when Austin recorded its most shocking, gruesome crime in modern history. The girls were stripped, bound and gagged with their own clothing, and shot, execution-style, in the back of the head with a .22 caliber revolver. Amy Ayers sustained a second, fatal shot with a .380-caliber pistol. One of the victims showed possible evidence of rape. Family members and advocates of the boys (now men in their mid- to late 20s) say the crime's sociopathic elements do not match the psychological makeup of the four accused, who had no criminal records or history of violent behavior prior to their arrests.
"The state of Texas has succeeded in putting another innocent man in prison," said Jeannine Scott, her voice shaking with emotion. "God, I can only hope the jury has enough sense to realize it's not worth his life. The fight starts now. It ain't over today just because they've convicted him. He's innocent, and I'm going to fight every day to bring him home." Outside the courthouse, she added, "I'm not angry with the 12 individuals who had a very difficult case to decide ... but I think they've been duped." The killer responsible for the crime is a "sick psychopath," she said, who could still be committing similar crimes today.
At trial, Scott's defense team of Carlos Garcia, Dexter Gilford, and Tony Diaz argued that prosecutors molded their case to fit certain details of Scott's confession. The defendant's statement, for example, included the participation of Welborn, even though charges against him were dismissed long ago. Yet prosecutors argued the case as though Welborn still stood accused of the crime, and jurors were not informed that charges against him had been dropped.
The case lacked solid physical evidence linking the suspects to the scene -- but the defense, not the prosecution, relied on the little evidence that was available to show how it conflicted with Scott's statement, which they say was coerced by police investigators. The prosecution brushed off those tactics as distractions. "The little unanswered questions in this case do not amount to an acquittal," assistant district attorney Efrain DeLaFuente told jurors during closing argument. He advised jurors to use their "common sense" in rendering a decision, his arguments echoed by co-prosecutors Darla Davis and Robert Smith.
Garcia, lead attorney for Scott, insisted that the store's backdoor lock could only be opened from inside with a key, thus calling into question Scott's presumably coerced recollection that earlier that day he had unlatched the door by hand and propped it open, to facilitate entry for the robbery. "If this does not convince you, I don't know what will," Garcia said, pointing to a cloudy photo of a lock on a badly charred door. But the lock had not been preserved as evidence by investigators, and the prosecution argued that the photograph was not clear enough to determine what kind of lock was on the door. Undermining the defense contention, prosecutors also presented a former manager of the yogurt shop who testified that the door had a thumb-latch lock.
Evidently, the jury was not convinced that the lock opened only with a key. After the verdict was announced on Sunday, alternate juror Jim Raup offered his opinion: "I thought if I heard one more word about the backdoor [lock], I was going to scream."
A Travis Co. jury rejected the death penalty for Michael Scott and instead delivered a life prison sentence for the 1991 murder of 13-year-old Amy Ayers. Jurors deliberated less than three hours on Tuesday before reaching their decision, capping the second of three trials scheduled in the long-running yogurt shop murder case. The outcome of Scott's trial could add weight to the appeal of his co-defendant and friend, Robert Springsteen IV, who got the death penalty after being convicted of the same charge.
Why did jurors spare one life and choose death for another? It all comes down to what the defendants' attorneys did and didn't do, says Austin attorney Mary Kay Sicola, who is handling Springsteen's appeal. "You have one set of attorneys [in Scott's case] who bothered to introduce evidence during the sentencing phase, and then you have another attorney who didn't say word one." Unlike Scott's defense team, Springsteen's attorney, for whatever reason, did not call character witnesses to the stand to speak on the defendant's behalf -- a mistake that proved fatal.
Though prosecutors sought the death penalty for Scott, District Attorney Ronnie Earle has never been a strong advocate of death sentences. "We asked the jury to consider the death penalty -- they heard the evidence and decided that a life sentence was appropriate," Earle said. "The jury did its duty."
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