Home, but not free yet

By: Carter Pagel

The good news? In June, a judge ordered the immediate release of Michael Scott and Robert Springsteen, two men wrongfully accused of murder in the infamous Austin Yogurt Shop case. The bad news?  Despite a complete lack of evidence, the charges against the men still have not been dropped.

Supporters waited outside the courthouse on June 24 for Michael and Robert to be released. “We’ve been fighting around this case for years,” Lily Hughes of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty (CEDP) said, as she watched CEDP member Jeannine Scott walk out arm-in-arm with her husband Michael. “So we wanted to be here to see Mike and Rob finally walk out of jail.”

The latest development in a case that has dragged on for 18 years highlights the total incompetence and disturbing stubbornness of the Travis County District Attorney’s office.  Just prior to their release, D.A. Rosemary Lehmberg admitted that the prosecution was not ready to go to trial in the case. So in what is a retrial for two men who were arrested 10 years ago and had their initial convictions overturned more than two years ago, the prosecution still expects innocent people and their families to continue putting their lives on hold.

Fortunately, rather than leaving Michael and Robert to languish in prison while prosecutors scramble to make a case out of nothing, Judge Mike Lynch freed the defendants on personal recognizance bonds pending their upcoming trials.

As Jeannine put it at the time of Michael and Robert’s release, “The fight isn’t over. We must maintain pressure on the state until the charges are  dropped, and these men can pursue their lives without the fear of the state of Texas coming back.”  Michael and Robert are accused of committing what local media have dubbed the “Yogurt Shop murders.” On December 6, 1991, four teenage girls were raped and murdered at a North Austin yogurt shop, which was then set aflame. Between the efforts to extinguish the fire and police work that could be described as careless at best and corrupt at worst, most of the forensic evidence was destroyed or damaged.

The ensuing investigation lasted for eight years, produced confessions from over 50 different people, and finally concluded in the 1999 arrests of four men.  Charges against the two other men were dropped, but Michael and Robert were held, tried and convicted despite a lack of any physical evidence linking them to the crime. The only evidence against them were their “confessions,” and in the years since the initial trials, photographic proof has come out showing a police officer holding a gun to Michael’s head during questioning in an interrogation room.

Furthermore, it was revealed that there was DNA evidence taken from the crime scene, but it didn’t match any of the defendants or the victims. A recent investigation by the Austin American-Statesman found that at least seven jury members from the original trials would have voted differently had they known about the presence of unidentified DNA samples.

The convictions of Michael and Robert were overturned in 2007 on the basis of unfair trials, but the men remain accused and now face new trials.  While preparing to go to trial for a second time, defense attorneys requested new DNA tests using more advanced scientific methods, and in December 2008, results were released that again found no match to any of the four men initially charged. The tests did reveal the presence of unknown sperm inside one of the victims, but prosecutors have failed to match the DNA to any person connected to the crime scene, including police investigators and other public safety workers.

In March of this year, further testing again found DNA evidence of an unknown male suspect, yet the prosecution again failed to match the DNA to the defendants.  Based on these results, defense attorneys have been fighting for the exoneration and release of their clients, but prosecutors are unwilling to concede to the scientific evidence before them.

Due to the horrific nature of the crimes, there has been a strong desire on the part of the public to convict someone, and without any real leads, the D.A.’s office has refused to drop its cases against Michael and Robert. 

About 30 people rallied outside the DA’s office in August, calling on  prosecutors to drop the charges. Over the years, the CEDP has held rallies and meetings, attended hearings and gathered petitions in support of Michael and Robert. The CEDP plans to keep pressuring the DA to finally end this farce.

Judge Lynch has issued an order giving the state until October 28 to announce whether it will proceed with a retrial or drop the charges. And the judge has made it clear that the state and the defense must be ready for trial and may not request further continuations.  Whether or not Judge Lynch holds Lehmberg’s office to this new deadline and forces this charade to finally come to an end remains to be seen, but for now at least, Michael and Robert are home with their families after a decade behind bars.