The Austin Chronicle

Justice Delayed for Yogurt Shop Defendant

By Jordan Smith, April 21, 2006, News

Although the Constitution's Sixth Amendment protects a defendant's right to a speedy trial (among other rights), that promise apparently doesn't extend to appeals proceedings; or at least, in the case of convicted Yogurt Shop Murders defendant Robert Springsteen, it is a right that apparently isn't of much concern to the nine justices of the Court of Criminal Appeals, Texas' highest criminal court.

Springsteen was the first of two defendants convicted of the grisly 1991 murders of four girls inside a North Austin yogurt shop. A third defendant – Maurice Pierce, who prosecutors insisted was the mastermind behind the crime – was released in 2003 after prosecutors dropped all charges against him; a Travis Co. grand jury twice declined to indict a fourth suspect, Forrest Welborn. (For more, see "Somebody Has to Die," June 15, 2001.) Springsteen was convicted in 2001, sentenced to die and sent to death row, where he's still waiting for the CCA to issue an opinion on his first round of appeals, filed in October 2002 and argued before the court in May 2003.

Indeed, as of noon today, April 20, it has been two years, 10 months, and 23 days that the court has been sitting on Springsteen's direct appeal of his capital-murder conviction without making a ruling – or, a total of 151 weeks (rounded down), 1,058 days (including weekends), 25,392 hours, 1,523,520 minutes, or 91,411,200 seconds since six members of the court showed up to hear oral arguments on Springsteen's appeal. Calculated from the date that the appeal was actually filed, Oct. 16, 2002, a total of three years, six months, and four days have passed – or, 1,282 days (including weekends), 183 weeks (rounded down), 30,768 hours, 1,846,000 minutes, or 110,764,800 seconds.

Nonetheless, at press time, no one at the CCA was able to explain exactly why the court has taken such an exorbitant amount of time to issue a ruling in the case. Although Springsteen's appellate attorney Mary Kay Sicola outlined a number of points on appeal, the strongest is the contention that Springsteen's conviction should be overturned because the trial court erred by admitting portions of a nontestifying co-defendant's statement to police as evidence, but without affording Springsteen the opportunity to cross-examine the evidence – a move that appeared to boldly violate the Sixth Amendment's guarantee that a defendant may cross-examine witnesses. At issue, specifically, is the district court's decision to allow portions of co-defendant Michael Scott's "confession" to police into evidence; the court allowed an Austin Police detective to read redacted portions of Scott's testimony to jurors – thus violating the so-called Confrontation Clause, Sicola argued.

Indeed, it seems that as the CCA has been – ahem – deliberating Springsteen's case, the U.S. Supreme Court in March 2004 settled the argument, ruling, in an unrelated case, that confrontation is the only way to satisfy the Confrontation Clause. "Where testimonial statements are at issue, the only indicium of reliability sufficient to satisfy constitutional demands is the one the Constitution actually prescribes: confrontation," opined Justice Antonin Scalia. Given the clear mandate, the CCA's apparent thumb twiddling is even more bizarre – a delay that some court watchers suggest is a rather passive-aggressive, if not a downright devious way to stick it to Springsteen; knowing that a case must be overturned, some lawyers suggest, justices may sit on the opinion drafts, stalling in order to send a message. The alternative, of course, is that the justices are too befuddled or too unorganized to get the job done – if that's the case, we're glad we're not in charge of compiling the bench's takeout lunch order.

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