Springsteen Sues for Innocence – in Bexar County

Freed inmate takes his case to a friendlier venue

Robert Springsteen talks to reporters after his release.
Robert Springsteen talks to reporters after his release. (Photo by Jana Birchum)

More than four years after the dismissal of the capital murder charges filed against him in connection with the notorious 1991 yogurt shop murders, Robert Springsteen has filed a civil case in Bexar County district court, asking that a judge make a finding that he is actually innocent of that crime. "Without a judicial declaration of innocence, there is no recourse for the innocent who are wrongly accused or convicted," reads the suit, filed in December 2013.

Springsteen was one of four men charged with committing, as teenagers, the horrifying murders of four teen girls – Eliza Thomas, 17, sisters Jennifer and Sarah Harbison, 17 and 15, and Amy Ayers, 13 – on Dec. 6, 1991, inside a North Austin yogurt shop. Eight years later, Springsteen, 16 at the time of the murders, and his high school acquaintances Michael Scott and Maurice Pierce, also then 16, were charged with capital murder. (A grand jury twice declined to indict a fourth teenager, Forrest Welborn, as an accomplice.)

The state sought, and received, a death sentence for Springsteen in 2001; a year later, a jury returned a verdict of life for Scott. Pierce spent more than three years in jail before the charges against him were dismissed for a lack of evidence. (Pierce was shot and killed in 2010 by an Austin Police Department officer during a struggle after fleeing a traffic stop; the officer was cleared of wrongdoing.)

The convictions of Springsteen and Scott were ultimately overturned. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that the prosecutors had violated the suspects' constitutional rights; after marathon police interrogation sessions, both Scott and Springsteen had confessed, including the admission by Springsteen that he had raped Ayers. The subsequent discovery in 2008 of two unknown male DNA profiles taken from vaginal swabs of the slain girls cast considerable doubt on the confessions. Although the state has tested hundreds of men connected to the case, including the original four suspects, boyfriends of the girls, and other acquaintances, no match has ever been found for either profile.

District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg reluctantly dismissed the charges against Springsteen and Scott in 2009, while maintaining that they remain prime suspects. The state's new theory, apparently, is that the four boys were aided by two additional, unidentified accomplices. Although the APD told the Chronicle in 2011 that its investigation was ongoing, it appears that the case has again gone cold (see "Scene of the Crime," Dec. 16, 2011).

In May 2013, Springsteen sued in federal court, seeking to be declared "actually innocent" and receive compensation for his wrongful imprisonment – including several years on death row – arguing that he had been "dangling under the sword of Damocles" since the charges against him were dismissed "pending further investigation." Texas Comptroller Susan Combs, whose office administers those compensation funds, had declined to pay Springsteen restitution, saying there had been no official declaration of actual innocence, as state law requires. The federal suit was ultimately dismissed as well – Judge Lee Yeakel agreed with a magistrate who found that the court lacked jurisdiction to consider the claim.

Springsteen has returned to court, this time in state district court in Bexar County. (His pleadings argue that he has no chance of a fair hearing in Travis County.) In December he filed the current suit that seeks, under the civil Declaratory Judgment Act, to have District Judge Solomon J. Casseb III, enter a finding that he is, indeed, innocent.

The suit was not brought as an adversarial action, and Travis County D.A. Lehmberg is not named as a party. However, lawyers for Springsteen, including veteran Austin attorney Broadus Spivey, have notified her as a "party of interest." In turn Lehmberg, through Assistant D.A. Scott Taliaferro, in January asked the CCA to block the Bexar County court from considering the case: "It is abundantly clear that the issuance of an actual-innocence judgment by the Bexar County court would be an abuse of that court's discretion," Taliaferro wrote. "By issuing such a judgment – which that court clearly has no jurisdiction, authority, or legal basis to issue – that court would, in effect, create a mechanism that would be used by forum-shopping criminal defendants seeking to circumvent the criminal-justice process and preempt the possibility of a guilty verdict in a criminal trial."

Throughout her office's protestations are suggestions that the state may retry Springsteen. "It is true that Springsteen was found guilty of capital murder in the ... criminal trial. However, for the purposes of actual-innocence analysis, his current status is not that of a convicted murderer, but rather that of an uncharged suspect," Taliaferro wrote. Thus, he may be retried, and since there is no statute of limitations on capital murder, there's no timeline for the state to decide. A second prosecution is not "precluded by the fact that the capital-murder indictment was dismissed 'pending further investigation,' which suggests, at the very least, the possibility that, upon completion of that investigation, Spring­steen will again be prosecuted for the capital murder of Amy Ayers."

In mid-January the CCA refused to intervene, rejected Lehmberg's appeal, and bounced the case back to Casseb's San Antonio court for further consideration and a possible hearing.

Spivey finds absurd the notion that Lehmberg would ever retry Springsteen, given the lack of evidence against him and the existence of the unknown male DNA. "They're not going to try him again," he said. Nevertheless, Lehmberg's position – that as a formerly incarcerated individual now not under any criminal charges, Spring­steen has no avenue to clear his name – received a supporting brief filed with the CCA by Attorney General Greg Abbott and joined by seven elected district attorneys from El Paso to Harris counties. The prosecutors argued that the suit not only circumvents the criminal process, but is also an inappropriate application of civil statutes.

Spivey counters that the state statute that covers compensation for the wrongfully convicted contemplates that a person might be able to prove themselves innocent, if not through a writ of habeas corpus (which is not available to Springsteen since he is not currently imprisoned) then through some equivalent process, in this case, via a suit to seek declaratory judgment from the civil court. That can occur only if Springsteen can meet his burden of demonstrating he is, indeed, innocent. It may be an uphill battle, but Spivey believes he has right on this side: "The real issue in this thing is real simple," he said. "Is [Springsteen] entitled to a process to determine if he is actually innocent or not?"

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