Vice Chairman Kim Rossmo ... [gave] a short presentation on the weak evidence that took two men to trial in the notorious murder investigation, which he described in a written statement in advance of the meeting as having "suffered from ‘tunnel vision' and ‘group think.' "At the meeting, Rossmo argued that:
"It appears detectives are trying to twist the evidence to fit pre-existing theories, rather than adjusting their beliefs to accommodate the new DNA evidence," wrote Rossmo, a Texas State University criminology professor and former police detective. "A proper investigation requires an open mind and a constant exploration of alternative suspects. It appears this has not occurred in any meaningful way in the tragic Yogurt Shop Murders case."
"Groupthink" within the Police Department has hindered progress in the investigation, Rossmo told fellow commissioners. He said that investigators had failed to take a fresh look at the case, even as poor evidence gathered from a crime scene damaged from fire and water had contributed to faulty theories against the four teenagers originally arrested in the crimes, Rossmo said.
More than 50 people interviewed had falsely confessed to committing the crimes, but police had relied heavily on the confessions of the two teens whose convictions were later overturned, Rossmo said.
"There are strong emotions surrounding this case," he said. "However, strong emotions have been shown to interfere with clear thinking."The Statesman noted that "Some commissioners said they did not agree with Rossmo's criticisms but voted in favor of the resolution because they said a fresh set of eyes could develop new leads." (See more from the Austin Chronicle here and here)
The Yogurt Shop confessions were so notoriously unreliable that, when the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals' Criminal Justice Integrity Unit wanted to explore the subject of false confessions, they brought in a national expert who described the case as a textbook example of how they are obtained.
Likely Rossmo's suggested review stems from concerns raised in December by the Austin Chronicle's Jordan Smith that tunnel vision and hubris prevented police and prosecutors from pursuing other, more likely suspects even after DNA evidence disproved the state's theory and contradicted the confessions. Her reporting identified other problems besides false confessions, like APD reworking forensic results to support their weak case:
For example, the city's fire investigator, Melvin Stahl, concluded from reviewing the crime scene that the fire had started in a corner of the shop where supplies were stored. Later, after investigators obtained from [Michael] Scott a confession that he started the fire on the bodies of the girls by using an accelerant, investigators went out and got a second opinion from ATF agent Marshall Littleton that matched Scott's confession; Stahl then recanted his conclusions and reworked his theory to match Littleton's. "That stunk to high heaven," says [retired APD Sgt. John ] Jones. "That bothered me."Having now learned much more from the Forensic Science Commission's Todd Willingham/Ernest Willis investigation about how flaky and unscientific arson investigations were in Texas back in the early '90s, we can't be surprised at such shenanigans, but they indicate how the law enforcement first identified a theory then cherry-picked or manufactured evidence to support it instead of looking at the evidence and deriving conclusions from it.
The case deserves the external review and I hope the commission does a thorough job. I also hope that prosecutors and APD can avoid taking justified criticism personally and reacting with hostility and defensiveness, which is typically what's happened before now. The case was botched, the prosecution was botched, and afterward officials seemed more interested in justifying their errors than correcting them or pursuing other viable suspects.
OTOH, it's been more than 20 years. Why review it now? Because those who do not learn from their mistakes are inevitably doomed to repeat them.