Pierce Freed After Three Years: "Godspeed"
The DA drops charges against Maurice Pierce for the yogurt shop murders.
An emotional Maurice Pierce, flanked by his attorneys and family, held a brief press conference Jan. 30 for a bevy of reporters anxious for a personal comment on his surprise release from jail just two days before. Pierce was the third of three defendants charged with the 1991 slayings of four teen girls in a North Austin "I Can't Believe It's Yogurt!" shop. Two days earlier, District Attorney Ronnie Earle shocked everyone -- including Pierce and his attorneys -- by announcing that the state was dismissing the capital murder charges against Pierce for a lack of evidence. (His trial had been scheduled to begin April 20.) After thanking his lawyers, family, and God, Pierce noted that his nearly three-and-a-half-year incarceration was a "very difficult and painful period of time," before again asserting his innocence. "When I was detained and arrested I proclaimed my innocence of all the charges that [were] filed against me," Pierce read from a prepared statement, "and I am standing here today with that same proclamation: I am innocent of any and all charges pertaining to the yogurt shop case."
Indeed, Pierce has always maintained his innocence, making the state's case against him difficult at best. Co-defendants Robert Springsteen and Michael Scott -- both already tried and convicted in the case -- separately "confessed" to the murders; their lengthy interrogation sessions with Austin police detectives were the linchpins of the state's cases against them. Pierce had never confessed, forcing prosecutors to rely on the slight physical evidence gathered from the crime scene -- evidence that still suggests someone other than the yogurt shop three, the four victims, or any known shop employee was present in the store the evening of Dec. 6, 1991.
Earle told reporters the state was dropping the case against Pierce because of concerns about violating his constitutional rights, but the excuse seemed a convenient way to back away from a case the state was likely to lose. Earle said Pierce was being cut loose for two reasons: Prosecutors could not force Springsteen or Scott to testify against Pierce, because it would violate their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination; and prosecutors also couldn't use either Springsteen or Scott's confessions against Pierce because it would jeopardize Pierce's Sixth Amendment right to confront witnesses against him.
Yet constitutional considerations didn't hinder the state when prosecuting Springsteen and Scott. Prosecutors used portions of Springsteen's confession at Scott's trial, and vice versa, without affording either defendant the benefit of cross-examination. That exact issue is the basis of Springsteen's appeal, and will likely be a prominent feature of Scott's. "The state's case against these four boys has been a house of cards all along," said attorney Mary Kay Sicola, who is handling Springsteen's direct appeal. "If Robert Springsteen had been afforded the right to confront the witnesses against him, he wouldn't be sitting on death row today." (The DA's office has until April to file its appellate brief in the Springsteen case; Sicola hopes to argue her case before the appeals court in the fall.)
Earle told reporters that the state still believes Pierce is guilty -- the state has evidence against Pierce, he said, but not "the same evidence" they had on Springsteen and Scott. Earle said that while Pierce was incarcerated the state "expected" to develop a better case against him. "We hoped that evidence would develop, but it just did not develop," he said. "We were aware all along of the status of the evidence against him." If the state's evidence did not "develop," it was not for a lack of trying. In 2001, following Springsteen's May conviction, sources told the Chronicle that prosecutors were offering Scott a plum plea deal: roll over on Pierce and get a 20-year sentence, with the possibility of parole after 13 years -- in principle, a shocking offer for a defendant against whom the state was seeking the death penalty. Scott did not take the bait.
Courthouse speculation now focuses on whether Earle's move is a calculated attempt to push Springsteen or Scott into testifying against Pierce. Yet by admitting the constitutional weakness of the case against Pierce, Earle appears also to have strengthened appeal prospects for Springsteen and Scott.
Pierce told reporters that he intends to "move on with his life," and to reestablish his home life with his wife and 10-year-old daughter, likely somewhere away from Austin. Although he did not rule it out, he suggested that he will not pursue legal action against either the city or Earle's office for his three-plus years of incarceration. "I am sure you understand that this has been a very emotional time for my family and I, and we would like the opportunity to move on with our lives," Pierce said. "I thank you very much and Godspeed to you all."