Yogurt Shop Saga: New Unknown DNA Evidence

The DNA of yet two more unknown males has been discovered

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

A lawyer for yogurt shop murder defendant Robert Springsteen said Dec. 31 that additional DNA testing has now revealed at least two unknown male profiles, this time found on vaginal swabs taken from two of the victims, sisters Sarah and Jennifer Harbison. The DNA does not match any of the four suspects whom prosecutors insist committed the grisly December 1991 murders of four young girls, prompting Springsteen attorney Joe James Sawyer to argue – once again – that his client is not guilty and should be set free after spending nearly 10 years behind bars.

This is the second time in the past year that new DNA testing has revealed previously undetected male DNA unmatched to any donor known to Travis Co. prosecutors. In April, a vaginal swab taken from the youngest victim, 13-year-old Amy Ayers (who by all accounts was not sexually active) was retested by the state using new, more precise DNA testing. The results of that test revealed a previously undetected male profile that has not been matched to anyone – including the four men originally charged with the crime: Spring­steen, Michael Scott, Maurice Pierce, and Forrest Welborn. Prosecutors Gail Van Winkle and Efrain De La Fuente said that they expected the DNA would quickly be matched, but that did not happen. To date, dozens of comparison samples have been tested – including samples from public safety officers present at the crime scene – but none has been matched. Sawyer said that defense attorneys for Springsteen and Scott, the only two suspects the state has tried for the crime, received word Dec. 30 that additional testing requested by defense attorneys has now revealed at least two, and possibly three, unknown male DNA profiles on vaginal swabs taken from the Harbison sisters. Whether either of these profiles matches that previously found in Ayers is still unknown, he said.

De La Fuente and Van Winkle could not be reached for comment regarding the results of the most recent DNA testing. But Van Winkle did respond to the Austin American-States­man, saying that the DNA might have come from someone not involved in the crime and that the latest DNA results don't disprove the state's case.

Springsteen and Scott are two of four men originally charged with the grisly quadruple murder of the girls inside a North Austin yogurt shop on Dec. 6, 1991. The girls – Eliza Thomas, 17; Jennifer and Sarah Harbi­son, 17 and 15; and Ayers, 13 – were found dead in the back room of the shop, burned in a fire police said was started to cover the crime. In 1999, prosecutors announced that they'd found the murderers: four men who, at the time of the crime, were also teens. Springsteen was tried and convicted in 2001; Scott was tried and convicted in 2002; Pierce – who prosecutors claimed was the "mastermind" – was indicted and spent nearly 3½ years in jail before the District Attorney's Office dismissed the charges in 2003, saying it lacked enough evidence to convict him. The case against Welborn, who prosecutors said acted as a getaway driver, was ultimately dropped after two grand juries failed to indict him.

The state's case relied heavily on two separate "confessions" provided by Springsteen and Scott, obtained by Austin police in 1999 after lengthy and arguably coercive interviews during which the two incriminated themselves and each other. (Springsteen and Scott were not the only two to confess; police collected at least 50 confessions, which is not unusual in a notorious case.) The two men's convictions were overturned on appeal because the trial court erred in allowing the state to use one man's confession as evidence in the trial against the other, thereby denying each man's Sixth Amendment right to confront witnesses against him. Eventually, in accord with a related U.S. Supreme Court ruling, state courts booted the Springsteen and Scott cases back to Travis Co. – but without the ability to use the confession of a nontestifying co-defendant. Both men have recanted the substance of their statements to police and maintain their innocence.

There was no physical evidence found at the crime scene directly linking any of the defendants to the murders. Defense attorneys say that the "new" DNA evidence found in the bodies of three of the four victims makes it clear that their clients are not guilty. "To a scientific certainty we have excluded all four of these [men]," said Sawyer, "and we know that there is DNA in these little girls' vaginas that has nothing to do with consensual sex." He said prosecutors continue to rely on "confessions ... [without] a shred of physical evidence" that confirms their theory of the crime.

Sawyer said there's still additional testing to be done but that he intends to ask District Judge Mike Lynch to release Springsteen on bond. At press time, Springsteen and Scott were headed back into court for another pretrial hearing.

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yogurt shop murders, Robert Springsteen, Michael Scott, Joe James Sawyer, Gail Van Winkle, Efrain De La Fuente, Sarah Harbison, Jennifer Harbison, Amy Ayers, Eliza Thomas, Maurice Pierce, Forrest Welborn

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