Home at last after years wrongly imprisoned

June 30, 2009

Laura Brady reports on a victory in Texas for two men who spent years in prison wrongly convicted for murder.

AFTER TEN years behind bars, Michael Scott and Robert Springsteen are finally tasting the freedom they deserve.

Texas District Judge Mike Lynch ordered their release on personal recognizance bond Wednesday after prosecutors said they weren't prepared to begin a July 6 retrial--and on a bright, warm afternoon last week, Robert and Michael walked out of the Travis County Jail as supporters and activists cheered this victory long in the making.

Scott and Springsteen were wrongly convicted in the grisly 1991 rape and murder of four female teenagers at the "I Can't Believe It's Yogurt" shop in Austin. Public horror at the crime put the police under tremendous pressure to make an arrest, even years later--the eight-year investigation produced as many as 50 false confessions.

Finally, four young men were arrested in connection with the murders. Two were eventually released, but Springsteen and Scott were convicted in separate trials--Springsteen was sentenced to death and Scott to life in prison.

Members of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty demonstrate in support of the Yogurt Shop defendants
Members of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty demonstrate in support of the Yogurt Shop defendants (Matt Beamesderfer | SW)

The case against the two was tissue-thin. No physical evidence linked Springsteen and Scott to the crime--the only evidence was their "confessions," which prosecutors decided were more compelling than the dozens of other false confessions extracted by police. One police officer admitted to holding a gun to Michael's head during his interrogation--this was documented in a still from a video.

Supporters of the two men--among them, Jeannine Scott, Michael's wife, who became a leading member of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty--refused to accept this outcome and began organizing.

The breakthrough came in 2007 when both men's convictions were overturned because of constitutional violations. In addition, new DNA testing showed that material taken from the bodies of the victims didn't come from any of the four men arrested--nor any of the dozens of people who have given samples to police.

The prosecution said it would retry Springsteen and Scott, and they remained in custody awaiting a new trial--until the judge's order freed them.

SCOTT AND Springsteen were cheered by supporters as they left the jail, accompanied by Scott's wife and their lawyers. "We were out with our signs and banner for hours in the Texas sun," said CEDP member Ricky Hill. "We had to show our support. This is a great day."

Later that evening, friends and family gathered to celebrate. Everyone erupted in emotional cheering as Michael Scott walked through the door with his wife and daughter.

Earlier, Jeannine Scott told reporters that the big day for her would be when a jury delivers a "not guilty" verdict so the nightmare can end. Among supporters that night, she repeated that sentiment: "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."

Robert Springsteen had been invited to join this celebration, but he couldn't--a court order declared the two men must remain apart. Other bond stipulations require the two men to not consume alcohol, carry a firearm, contact the victims' families or leave Travis County.

But after a decade-long separation from his loved ones, Michael Scott just wants to be home. "He loves to cook," said Jeannine, "and we have steaks thawing for dinner."

Word of Robert and Michael's release spread quickly, and calls of support began coming in from across the globe. Terri Been, the sister of Jeff Wood, who sits on Texas' death row even though prosecutors admit he didn't kill anyone, said her family literally jumped up and down for joy upon hearing the news.

"As an activist and a friend of the Scott family, I have been following the Yogurt Shop case for quite some time now, and I'm greatly disturbed by Texas' concept of justice," Terri said. Gavin Been, a member of Kids Against the Death Penalty, agreed and added, "Rest assured though that KADP will continue to support Mr. Scott and Mr. Springsteen until they are completely clear of this nightmare."

Activists agree that this is a day to celebrate. But the fight is far from over. The time has come for Travis County prosecutors to admit they have no case against Michael Scott and Robert Springsteen.

For now, they are home--but we must continue the grassroots struggle to ensure that home is where they stay.

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