Minutes before midnight on December 6, 1991, firefighters were summoned to a fire at the I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt shop in Austin, Texas. In a back room, they found the nude bodies of four girls, 17-year-old Eliza Thomas, 17-year-old Jennifer Harbison, 15-year-old Sarah Harbison and 13-year-old Amy Ayers.
All had been tied up and shot in the back of the head, then a fire was started to try to cover up the crime, one of the most infamous in Austin history.
Four teenage boys soon came under suspicion. Robert Springsteen and Michael Scott
, both 17, Maurice Pierce, 16, and Forrest Welborn, 15—all of them friends—were interrogated after one of them was caught carrying a .22-caliber revolver in a mall. Three of the victims had been shot with .22-caliber ammunition, the other with a .38-caliber weapon.
When the ballistics on the gun failed to match the bullets from the victims, the four were released.
In February 1998, with the case gone cold, police decided to conduct a new investigation of the crime. They re-questioned Scott by telephone and he denied involvement.
On September 9, 1999, Scott was questioned again, this time in a police station. At one point during a 12-hour interrogation, Scott said he knew the identities of the killers.
On September 10, the interrogation resumed and ultimately, Scott said he had probably shot one of the girls, that he had fired a gun once and that he set the fire.
On September 13, Scott was interviewed once more and said he remembered seeing Pierce with one of the girls in a separate room in the yogurt shop. He said he thought he had gagged one of the girls with paper towels or napkins.
Further, Scott said the .22-caliber pistol came from Springsteen. He remembered little about the other weapon, but thought it was a semi-automatic .38 caliber.
Springsteen was arrested in Charleston, West Virginia, where he was living. Police videotaped him confessing to sexually assaulting and killing one of the victims.
Scott, Springsteen, Pierce and Welborn were all charged with capital murder, but ultimately the charges against Pierce and Welborn were dismissed.
Springsteen went on trial first and was convicted on May 30, 2001, largely on the basis of his confession. He had recanted the confession and claimed it had been coerced.
Springsteen was sentenced to death—a sentence that was later be reduced to life in prison after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that juveniles could not be sentenced to death.
Scott was convicted on September 22, 2002. His conviction was based primarily on 20 hours of videotaped interrogation during which he admitted participating in the crime. Like Springsteen, Scott claimed the confession was false and the result of coercion.
Scott was sentenced to life in prison after the jury could not unanimously agree on a death sentence.
In 2006, Springsteen’s conviction was overturned when the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that Scott’s confession had been improperly used as evidence him in violation of his 6th amendment right to cross-examine witnesses.
On June 6, 2007, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals set aside Scott’s conviction under the same rationale. Prosecutors had used Springsteen’s videotaped statements at Scott’s trial.
As the cases were being prepared for retrial, defense lawyers requested DNA tests be performed on evidence in the case. The prosecution agreed because DNA testing had become more discriminating and exact in the 17 years since the crime had occurred.
The tests revealed the DNA profile of a man on biological evidence taken from two of the victims, Ayers and Jennifer Harbison. The DNA of another man was found on clothing used to bind the wrists of a third victim, Eliza Thomas. A partial DNA profile of a third person was also found on Jennifer Harbison.
None of the DNA profiles matched Scott, Springsteen, Pierce or Welborn.
Scott and Springsteen were released on bond on June 24, 2009, and on October 28, 2009, the prosecution dismissed the charges against them.
– Maurice Possley