FROM THE ARCHIVES: Robert Burns Springsteen's rights were denied, Texas appellate court says

  • In US
  • 2021-11-30 14:00:38Z
  • By Austin American-Statesman

Editor's note: This story originally published May 25, 2009.

The state's highest criminal appeals court Wednesday threw out the capital murder conviction of Robert Burns Springsteen IV, who was sent to death row five years ago for killing one of the four teenage girls murdered at a North Austin yogurt shop in 1991.

In a sharply divided decision that continues the tortuous legal saga of one of Austin's most horrible crimes, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that a second suspect's confession was improperly used against Springsteen during the trial and sent the case back to a Travis County court.

"Here we go again," said former Austin police Sgt. John Jones, one of the first officers to arrive at the yogurt shop that night. "This is going to be tough on the parents to have to live through all this again."

The families of the victims could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle declined to comment on what prosecutors will do next.

"We are reviewing the opinion and the issues it presents," he said in a written statement.

Springsteen's 2001 death sentence for the murder of 13-year-old Amy Ayers was commuted to life in prison last year after the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed executions of criminals who were juveniles at the time they committed their crimes. Springsteen, 31, was 17 when Ayers, Jennifer Harbison and Eliza Thomas, both 17, and Sarah Harbison, 15, were shot to death in the I Can't Believe It's Yogurt store Dec. 6, 1991. The store was set on fire after the girls were shot.

After being stymied for eight years, the Austin Police Department arrested Springsteen, Michael Scott and two other men in 1999 in connection with the murders. Scott was sentenced to life in prison in 2002; charges against the other two men were dropped.

Springsteen and Scott confessed to investigators, though both men recanted and their lawyers claimed in court that the confessions were coerced by police.

Springsteen's appeals lawyer, Mary Kay Sicola, said no evidence at the scene linked Springsteen or Scott to the crime.

"There is all sorts of physical evidence that does not implicate these guys," she said.

That made the confessions crucial in court.

In his trial, Springsteen testified that he was able to give police details of the crime because he'd heard them in the media and from other teenagers. But he couldn't explain how he knew details that weren't public knowledge - including the type of gun used to kill Ayers and the correct position of her body at the scene.

Parts of Scott's confession - edited to remove any mention of Springsteen - were read to the jury at Springsteen's trial to show similarities in their statements to police.

But because Scott did not testify, and therefore couldn't be cross-examined by Springsteen's lawyers, the Court of Criminal Appeals said in its 5-4 decision that Springsteen was denied his constitutional right to confront witnesses against him.

"We cannot say, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the admission of Scott's statements did not affect the jury's determination of (Springsteen's) guilt," said the ruling, written by Judge Paul Womack and joined by Judges Tom Price, Cheryl Johnson, Charles Holcomb and Cathy Cochran.

A dissenting opinion written by Sharon Keller, the court's presiding judge, and signed by Judges Barbara Hervey and Michael Keasler said the admission of Scott's statement "did not contribute to the jury's conclusion that (Springsteen) murdered Amy Ayers."

Judge Lawrence Meyers voted against the majority but didn't sign the dissenting opinion.

The dissenting opinion pointed out that jurors heard Springsteen's own videotaped confession, which by itself "is a powerful piece of incriminating evidence," and said that his lawyers "offered no remotely believable motive for (Springsteen) to confess falsely to involvement in the murders."

Austin police issued a statement Monday saying the department is "confident in the guilt of Robert Springsteen. . . . APD will continue to work with the Travis County district attorney's office on the yogurt shop murder case to ensure that Robert Springsteen continues to be held accountable for these horrific murders."

Assistant District Attorney Bryan Case said prosecutors have three options when the Court of Criminal Appeals reverses a case: They can ask the court for a new hearing; they can appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court; or the can retry the case in district court. Case said the district attorney's office has asked for a new hearing in more than half of the cases reversed by the Court of Criminal Appeals.

Sicola said that under Texas law, Springsteen can be tried again based only on his own confession.

"Whether or not he can be found guilty is an entirely different question," she said.

The reversal of Springsteen's conviction may call Scott's conviction into question because prosecutors used a similar tactic against Scott - using Springsteen's confession in court when Springsteen did not testify.

Scott's appeals lawyer also argued that he was denied his right to cross-examine witnesses, but the Texas 3rd Court of Appeals upheld Scott's conviction in March 2005, saying there was enough evidence to convict him without Springsteen's confession.

Scott's case is pending before the Court of Criminal Appeals.

This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: FROM THE ARCHIVES: Robert Springsteen's yogurt shop conviction tossed


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