They got the wrong guys

By: Lily Hughes

Michael Scott and Robert Springsteen have a hearing in May which could win their release from prison after more than a decade.

In 1991, four young women were raped and killed in an Austin yogurt shop. After eight years of an investigation plagued with false confessions and insufficient evidence, four young men were arrested and charged with the murders.

One of the accused was released for lack of evidence, and another was held in jail for four years and then released. But two other suspects were tried and convicted. Robert Springsteen was sentenced to death and Michael Scott was sentenced to life in prison.

The murders of Eliza Thomas, 17; Amy Ayers, 13; and sisters Jennifer and Sarah Harbison, 17 and 15, were shocking. In the high-profile investigation, there was tremendous pressure on police to make an arrest. Over the years, police and prosecutors played on public horror over the murders to compensate for the lack of evidence against Michael and Robert.

A turning point came in 2007 when Michael and Robert's convictions were overturned due to violations of their constitutional right to confront the witnesses against them. At trial, their "confessions" were used against each other, despite their refusal to testify against each other. They now face new trials, and are currently involved in pre-trial proceedings.

Astoundingly, prosecutors are still going after Michael and Robert, although in the last few years, it has become increasingly difficult for the state to prove their guilt.

The only evidence against the men were Michael's and Robert's "confessions," despite the fact that the police had taken roughly 50 other confessions while the case was being investigated. In addition, a police officer admitted to holding a gun to Michael's head in the interrogation room, an event documented by a still video shot.

From the beginning, there has been no physical evidence linking these men to the crime. There was DNA evidence taken from the crime scene, but it did not match any of the defendants nor the victims.

As defense attorneys prepare to go to trial for the second time, new DNA tests were requested using more advanced scientific methods. In December 2008, results were released that again found no match to any of the four men initially charged. In a subsequent press statement, Robert's defense lawyer Joe Sawyer wrote, "This exonerates defendant Springsteen and makes it clear someone else committed these murders."

The tests did reveal the presence of unknown male sperm inside the youngest victim, 13-year-old Amy Ayers. Despite claiming that the DNA would match someone known to the state, and after testing dozens of people over several months, the prosecution has not matched the DNA to any person connected to the crime scene, including police investigators and other public safety workers.

In early March, further DNA testing again found the presence of other unknown male suspects, and again failed to match the defendants. Based on these results, defense attorneys have been fighting for the release of their clients. But prosecutors seem unwilling to concede to the scientific evidence before them. A March meeting with prosecutors and Judge Mike Lynch, also the original trial judge, yielded no relief.

A recent investigation by the Austin American-Statesman found that at least seven of the jury members from the original trials would have voted differently if they had known about the presence of the unidentified DNA samples.

Additionally, a grand jury member, Diane Castaneda, told the Austin Chronicle that she had contacted Judge Mike Lynch to complain that the grand jury was "used as pawns in what I assume to be a rush to judgment."

She noted that the jurists were not allowed to see videotapes of Michael and Robert's "confessions" and that they were not allowed to ask direct questions of the witnesses, normally a trademark of grand jury proceedings. "It seemed like everything was just skewed against [the defendants]," said Castaneda.

The CEDP has been fighting for justice for Michael and Robert for years. Jeannine Scott, the wife of Michael Scott and a longtime CEDP member, believes it was the CEDP's activism around Michael's first trial that kept him from receiving a death sentence. Recently, we have held several pickets outside pre-trial hearings and attended them as a group, wearing the solidarity colors of green and purple to identify ourselves as supporters.

In January, about 50 people came out to a march and rally to hear Jeannine and Diane Castaneda speak about the case. "[The new DNA evidence] is a momentous breakthrough," Jeannine commented at the time. "They got the wrong guys. They've had the wrong guys for nearly ten years. It's time to end this charade."

A hearing in May could see the release of Michael and Robert on bond. Meanwhile, the CEDP will keep up the pressure on prosecutors to drop all the charges. THE DNA EXONERATES!