Thursday, June 07, 2012

External review suggested for botched Austin Yogurt Shop investigation

Grits was fascinated to see this week that "The Austin Public Safety Commission on Monday passed a resolution that would establish a process and provide funding for the external review of selected major cold cases, starting with the infamous 1991 yogurt shop slayings." Here's why:
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.' "

"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."
At the meeting, Rossmo argued that:
"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.


Anonymous said...

It has long been rumored among law enforcement authorities in Austin that this crime was committed to cover up child sex crimes by Austin police officers. If this case is ever to be solved the DNA of every police officer who was on the APD force at the time needs to be taken and analyzed. Especially those whom operated out of the substations.

Indeed, it would be the greatest crime solving initiative ever undertaken if DNA was taken from all current and former law enforcement officers and entered into CODIS and NDIS. Millions of sex crimes and murders would be solved overnight. If you have nothing to hide then what are you afraid of?

I must remind everyone that more police officers are convicted of child sex crimes than all other professions combined. It's law enforcement's "dirty little secret", and one we are committed to exposing. Police officers use their positions of trust to violate our children. Their victims are threatened with physical harm and told no one will believe their word over that of a police officer. Please take a few minutes and visit our Facebook pages to learn why cops are predisposed to commit child sex crimes and how you can protect your children from being victimized:

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I've never heard that rumor, 9:58.

That said, police departments SHOULD collect DNA from all officers, if only to exclude it when it's found at a crime scene they worked.

If you did that, there could also be cases where matching their DNA could solve past crimes, but IMO it's absurd to suggest "Millions of sex crimes and murders would be solved overnight."

west_virginia_girl17 said...

Not all cops are like that, and just because of a few bad apples you shouldnt condemn the whole tree. there might be more officers like that than any other profession, but there are more cops than other professional workers. there are more cops than there are teachers at my school for example. 7 teachers. 20 different cops, 4 for each day of the week. yea, thats a lot. have respect. thats like someone saying that your dad, and his dad and so on back into generations were all filthy lying scum, so you are too. dont judge a book by it cover... good god im only 17 and i have more respect than a lot of you danged people. @anonymous

MG said...

"Tunnel vision"? The four accused were arrested years after the crime. They were interrogated right after, but charges were filed almost a decade later. How is that locking on to these suspects. Dozens were investigated. I don't understand why people are breaking their backs bending over to believe that three of these guys were lying when they confessed to being involved in the crime.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@MG, the "why" is easy: DNA contradicted the confessions and the state's theory of the crime couldn't account for the prosecutors believed was an unindicted co-ejaculator not named in any of the men's statements. In a word: Evidence.