The Austin Chronicle

Lehmberg Answers Springsteen Suit

By Jordan Smith, April 11, 2014, News

Robert Springsteen, one of four men accused of committing the notorious and still unsolved 1991 yogurt shop murders, should not be allowed to seek to clear his name in civil court, Travis Co. District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg argues in a new filing prepared on her behalf by County Attorney David Escamilla. Texas courts "that have considered similar requests have held that it is entirely improper for a civil court to issue preemptive declarations of guilt or innocence," reads the motion, filed last week.

The motion responds to a suit filed by Springsteen in Bexar County in December under the state's Declaratory Judgment Act, asking a civil judge to make a finding that Springsteen is actually innocent of the grisly quadruple murder. Without a judicial declaration of his innocence, there is no recourse for the "wrongly accused or convicted," reads the suit.

Springsteen was convicted and originally sent to death row for allegedly committing, as a teenager, 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, both also then 16, were charged with capital murder. A grand jury declined to indict a fourth, Forrest Welborn, as an accomplice.

Scott was also convicted, but received a life sentence. Pierce spent more than three years in jail before the charges against him were dropped for a lack of evidence. Indeed, there was no physical evidence linking any of the three men to the crime, but after lengthy interrogations over multiple days, Springsteen and Scott each confessed to the crime and implicated each other.

Prosecutors were successful in having have each man's confession entered as evidence at the trial of the other – a move that presumably offered the only corroboration of the crimes, but that simultaneously violated each defendant's Sixth Amendment right to confront witnesses against him. Each conviction was overturned, but it wasn't until after DNA from two unknown men was found on vaginal swabs taken from the victims that the charges against Springsteen and Scott were finally dismissed pending further investigation. That has essentially left each man under threat that Lehmberg's office could come back and try the case again.

Springsteen has been exploring various avenues to clear his name, including the latest suit. Although Springsteen says he filed in Bexar Co. because he wouldn't be able to get a fair hearing in Austin, Lehmberg's response, filed by Escamilla on April 1, suggests that instead the suit is an "inappropriate attempt at forum shopping." Springsteen's suit also claims Lehmberg is not actually a party to the case; that can't be, reads her response, since Springsteen is, in essence, attacking a criminal charge over which she has final say. "Essentially, [Springsteen] seeks to have the Court issue a preemptive advisory order circumventing [Lehmberg's] constitutionally established responsibilities," reads the suit. If a civil judge were allowed to declare Springsteen innocent, "the potential effect of a declaration of innocence may effectively impact the State's ability to pursue filing new charges" against Springsteen in the future.

The response further notes that aside from the constitutional violation that led to Springsteen's conviction being overturned, the Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that the evidence of Springsteen's guilt was otherwise sufficient to support the conviction – presumably, the court is referring to Springsteen's own confession.

Of course, that specific determination was made years before the new male DNA was discovered – casting further doubt on the accuracy of Springsteen's confession. For example, Springsteen said he raped Ayers, yet it was unknown male DNA and not Springsteen's that was found on swabs taken from Ayers. And although Springsteen ultimately implicated Scott, Pierce, and Welborn in his account of the crime, he never made mention any additional accomplices. Aside from the questionable confession, no evidence connects Springsteen or any of the others to the crime. Police are allegedly still investigating.

And because capital murder has no statute of limitations, unless the police find the owners of the DNA or Lehmberg finally acknowledges the core deficiency in the case against Springsteen, he may never be able to find a way out from under the thumb of the D.A., as her pleading declares: "The [CCA] made it clear that neither the Double Jeopardy nor Due Process Clauses prohibited the retrial of Springsteen for the crime of capital murder." At press time, the case remains pending.

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