The “Yogurt Shop” frame-up falls apart

August 14, 2008

Dana Cloud reports on new evidence exonerating two men who have spent years behind bars for a crime they didn't commit.

MICHAEL SCOTT and Robert Springsteen, both convicted of murder in the notorious 1991 "Yogurt Shop" case in Austin, Texas, may be coming home soon. There is new DNA evidence exonerating all of the suspects arrested in connection with this grisly arson-murder of four young women in an Austin yogurt shop.

From the start, activists have challenged the cases against these innocent men, resulting in the overturning of their original convictions in 2007. The men currently face retrial.

The district attorney's office was under tremendous public pressure from the start to solve the case, but it took eight years for police to arrest four men for the murders: Forrest Welborn, Maurice Pierce, Michael Scott and Robert Springsteen.

Eventually, Scott was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 2002, and Springsteen was convicted and sentenced to death in 2001. (The Supreme Court's 2005 decision striking down the death penalty for juvenile offenders vacated the death sentence for Springsteen, who was 17 at the time of the murders.)

What you can do

Sign an on-line petition to demand that prosecutors drop all charges against Michael Scott and Robert Springsteen.

See the Campaign to End the Death Penalty Web site to learn more about the struggle against capital punishment across the country. The Campaign's newsletter, the New Abolitionist, has covered the "Yogurt Shop" case and activists' response to it in several articles, including "This injustice must stop here," by Lily Hughes, and "Taking on the Texas death machine," by Hooman Hedayati.

As Scott's case enters a new round of pretrial hearings, activists are making the most of new comparison tests showing that male DNA recovered from the body of 13-year-old Amy Ayers matched none of the four men arrested. The results indicate that an unknown perpetrator was present the night of the murders and sexually assaulted Ayers. Scott's and Springsteen's lawyers have received approval to retest DNA from other pieces of evidence, including some of the victims' clothing.

THESE RESULTS further demonstrate that not a shred of physical evidence connects Scott or Springsteen to the crime.

Even in 2002, the state could not muster a case for indictment against Welborn or Pierce, whom the District Attorney had named "ringleader" of the group. Both men were released for lack of evidence prior to trial.

The prosecution's cases against Scott and Springsteen were completely circumstantial, relying exclusively on coerced and confused confessions from the two defendants. In 2007, both Springsteen's and Scott's convictions were overturned because their confessions were illegally used against each other at trial.

Scott's lawyer Tony Diaz points to a range of inconsistencies to show that further prosecution would be absurd: Gun cartridges and shells found at the scene did not match any gun owned by any of the defendants; no DNA collected at the scene of the crime matches any of the four young men; none of several hairs and fingerprints matched the suspects.

In other words, there is no physical evidence linking the men to the scene. Instead, there are the confession, obtained through coercion. Interrogators held a gun to Michael Scott's head during his weeklong questioning, which resulted in a false confession that does not match crime-scene evidence. The police received dozens of other confessions in connection to this case.

Yet the district attorney's office persists in prosecuting Scott and Springsteen in spite of the shambles that the new evidence made of their already weak case.

In a writ asking that all charges against Springsteen be dismissed based on new exculpatory evidence, attorney Joe James Sawyer wrote, "This exonerates defendant Springsteen and makes it clear someone else committed these murders." Prosecutors acknowledged that the previously undiscovered DNA did not come from either of the two men facing trial.

"This is a momentous breakthrough," commented Jeannine Scott, wife of Michael Scott and longtime member of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty (CEDP). "They got the wrong guys. They've had the wrong guys for nearly ten years. It's time to end this charade." Scott's trial has been postponed pending release of the full results of the latest DNA tests.

Jeannine Scott and other members of the CEDP are calling for all charges against Michael Scott and Robert Springsteen to be dropped immediately. "There's no need for more trials," said CEDP member Lily Hughes. "It would be ridiculous to spend the money and take the years of time it would take to retry these guys when it's increasingly clear that they are not the killers."

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