Long Wait for Yogurt Shop Murders DNA

New DNA testing could exonerate defendants, lawyers say – if only they could see those test results.

Defense attorney Joe James Sawyer
Defense attorney Joe James Sawyer (Photo by Jana Birchum)

It's been nearly two months since prosecutors told the Chronicle they "expected" they already knew the identity of a male DNA contributor whose previously undetected profile was revealed during retesting of evidence from the notorious 1991 yogurt shop murders. But Travis Co. prosecutors are apparently still waiting for results of comparison DNA tests – at least that's the impression left by prosecutors Efrain De La Fuente and Gail Van Winkle during a June 11 pretrial hearing for Michael Scott, one of two men being retried for the grisly quadruple murder.

When Carlos Garcia, one of Scott's defense attorneys, asked for a DNA-testing "update" last week, District Judge Mike Lynch reminded the state that they were "under order" to report that information as soon as they obtain it. Neither prosecutor spoke up, indicating, Lynch noted, that there must not be any report to be made. The lack of new information perplexes and irritates the defense attorneys, who have argued that the new DNA proves that the two men awaiting retrial in the case, Scott and co-defendant Robert Spring­steen, are actually innocent.

The revelation in April that there was a new male profile collected from semen found on a vaginal swab taken from the youngest victim, 13-year-old Amy Ayers, appeared to deliver another stunning blow to the state's already weak case against Scott and Springsteen. Indeed, although the state insists the two are responsible for the murders, there is absolutely no physical evidence tying either man to the crime. The same is true for two other suspects – Maurice Pierce, the man the state has said was the "mastermind" behind the crime but against whom all charges were dismissed in 2003, and Forrest Welborn, who was dropped as a suspect after two grand juries failed to indict him – even though plenty of physical evidence was recovered from the scene, inside a North Austin yogurt shop.

Earlier this year, unbeknownst to the defense attorneys, prosecutors sought to have several pieces of evidence retested, including two swabs collected from Ayers: one taken at the crime scene, the second after she had been delivered to the medical examiner's office. Each yielded the same DNA profile of an unknown male. The revelation prompted Joe James Sawyer, Springsteen's lawyer, to file a writ with the court arguing that the DNA evidence exonerated his client, who should be set free (see "Yogurt Shop Murder," April 18). Lynch didn't act on that writ, but Scott's and Spring­steen's defenders have gotten approval to retest numerous other pieces of evidence – including articles of clothing used to bind the four teenage girls (the thinking is that if the same unknown male DNA can be found on any of those items, the case for Scott and Springsteen's innocence would be made that much stronger).

Prosecutors dismissed the notion that the newly revealed male DNA would exonerate Springsteen or Scott – instead, they said they suspected that a "match" would come from "someone known to Amy Ayers," suggesting that, contrary to previously disclosed information, the young victim was sexually active at the time of her death. Still, to date no match has been revealed – at least not to the defense, even though prosecutors told reporters in April they expected results within a month. The delay has Sawyer on the attack, accusing the state of trying to save face instead of doing justice: "The law has passed them by, and science has eclipsed" their theory of the case, he argued outside Lynch's courtroom last week. If Scott and Springsteen are guilty, he asked, "where is the proof?"

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

yogurt shop murders, Efrain De La Fuente, Gail Van Winkle, Robert Springsteen, Amy Ayers, Michael Scott, Joe Sawyer

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