Tuesday, June 02, 2009

CCA orders Yogurt Shop retrial based on possibility of false confessions

In grudging deference to the US Supreme Court's decision in Crawford requiring that defendants have the right to confront witnesses against them in court, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has thrown out one of the disputed convictions in Austin's infamous 1991 "Yogurt shop murders," a horrific case involving the murder of four teenage girls. The US Supreme Court refused the state's appeal, so the case must be retried or Springsteen released.

The 5-4 ruling at the CCA broke along familiar lines in this sharply divided court: Judge Keller wrote the dissent and Paul Womack wrote the majority opinion. Both are good reads (as such documents go) and provide much more background for those interested.

The debate boiled down to whether the judges feel false confessions are possible when not overtly coerced and whether they agree it's possible that information from the crime scene was leaked. Womack answered in the affirmative on both, while Keller insisted the defendant had no motive to lie (which ignores resarch about why people falsely confess) and that no evidence was presented at trial about leaked information, which of course doesn't mean it didn't happen. Rebutting that assertion, Judge Womack wrote:
In this case, a repudiation of a confession may have more than the usual weight. Police investigators had obtained other confessions to these murders that included non-public information, and the investigators had decided the confessions were not true. Within days of the murders, police were inundated with tips and leads. Many people knew facts that a witness called "the kind of information that should have remained at the crime scene." The appellant introduced several stories that the local newspaper published in December 1991 that contained "non-public" facts about the crime. An investigator testified that within weeks of the murders, "too many people [knew] too much about [the] crime scene." Many teenagers frequented the mall area near the yogurt shop, and information that the police had withheld quickly spread among "kids talking to each other about what they thought they knew about the case." Another investigator testified that "perhaps as many as 60 teenagers in that first week or two after these murders were brought in for questioning." He and another investigator testified that the investigation was derailed when too many teenagers began providing too much confidential information. The investigators had to investigate the leakage of information from their own investigation. Several investigators were removed from the case, one after being investigated by the internal affairs division.

In February and March 2002, Alex Briones and Shawn Pearson Smith confessed to the murders. The appellant introduced these confessions, which contained non-public, "hold-back" facts. Despite the confessions, police investigators decided that neither Briones or Smith had committed the crime.
Indeed, more than 50 different people confessed to the Yogurt Shop murders over the years, quite a few of them presenting information police had held back from the media, but police ultimately latched onto two of the confessors - Robert Springsteen and Michael Scott - who were tried and convicted of capital murder. No physical evidence from the crime scene links them to the event, however, and both men later recanted. DNA evidence finally tested last year also failed to match the defendants and contradicted the prosecution's theory of the case at trial, leading many folks (though not police and prosecutors) to conclude that these were also false confessions.

False confessions happen a lot more often than you might think: About 25% of DNA exonerees nationally either confessed or pled guilty to crimes it was later proven they didn't commit. One of the worst false confession cases in the nation, in fact, also arose out of Austin and involved some of the same detectives from the APD homicide squad.

This has been an incredibly long and difficult legal saga that seems destined for a particularly unsatisfying conclusion. Given new DNA evidence and the fact that the state can't use the defendants' confessions against one another, it's difficult to imagine prosecutors securing another conviction against Springsteen based on the disputed confession alone.


Anonymous said...

Probably one of your best posts.

I wish Texas law allowed for more scientific evidence on appeal, such as the studies regarding false confessions. Unless brought out at trial, it's almost impossible to have such studies heard.

doran said...

Did I read this correctly? Judge Keller dismissed the possibility that the Defendant had given a false confession (because he had no motive to lie) even though the record shows that more than 50 other people confessed to the crimes? Is that what she wrote?

Anonymous said...

Just to avoid any confusion, this case came down several years ago.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Huh ... Are you sure? The news story was dated Monday.

doran said...

That is peculiar. Judge Womack's opinion is dated in May 2006.

The news story is dated in June 2009, but has a quote, or a statement, attributed to Ronnie Earle, Travis County District Attorney. Which he is no longer, as far as I know.

Informed Citizen said...

Did the CCA backdate their opinion?
Either the Reporters made an error, or the CCA wrote these opinions 3 years ago and just now chose to diclose them, but backdated the release.

Informed Citizen said...

Keller, P.J., Hervey, Keasler, JJ., in their dissent, choose to disregard the clear, plain, language of our Texas Bill of Rights - Article I - securing to every person the absolute Right to an IMPARTIAL jury. ----
THE COURT, meaning the STATE ACTOR titled JUDGE, and all other Judicial Officials, and Court Officers of the STATE including the Prosecutor, have a LEGAL, as well as a FIDUCIARY, DUTY to provide every accused person with an IMPARTIAL jury.
The dissent is absurd & illogical because (1) these Justices assert the FACTS are irrelevant - in their mind if a jury wants to convict, even when the facts show no offense was committed, it's OK - as if there is no duty of Judicial Officials to provide an "impartial" jury, and
(2)the majority did NOT "reverse" with rendering, but reversed for RETRIAL.
I cannot help but wonder how these people get through Law School, let alone manage to then get a license to practice their bias & prejudice in OUR courts sitting on OUR bench.

Unknown said...

This decision came down in May 2006. The Statesman decided to reprint several articles in preparation for the potential upcoming Michael Scott re-trial. Check the opinions for the filing dates.

Anonymous said...

Of course it came down in 2006! Why else has Springsteen been in the news for the last year about the DNA wrangling in anticipation of a RETRIAL!?

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

@anon 6/3/09: This particular post was written as if there was new information. It wasn't. Merely reprinted articles in the Austin paper.

Grandmom said...

Where are you? Have you closed up shop? I didn't hear/read anything. The Yogurt Shop Trial: Judge Lynch did not allow the defense their witnesses to testify that the confession of Michael Scott was coerced. I was there.