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Conviction in slayings of 4 girls tossed

Court rules a co-defendant's statement was wrongly allowed

By JANET ELLIOTT
Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau
Det. Merrill "questioning" Michael Scott
Det. Merrill "questioned" Michael Scott by holding a gun to the back of his head to obtain a "voluntary confession"..

AUSTIN - The capital murder conviction of one of two men in the slayings of four teenage girls at a yogurt shop was overturned Wednesday by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

The 5-4 majority ruled that a co-defendant's statement should not have been read to the jury in the 2001 trial of Robert Burns Springsteen IV.

The December 1991 crime had haunted the city for nearly a decade before Springsteen's conviction and death sentence.

But his death sentence was commuted to life last year by Gov. Rick Perry after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that juvenile offenders could not be executed. Springsteen was 17 at the time of the slayings.

Co-defendant Michael Scott was given a life sentence in 2003. Both were convicted for the murder of 13-year-old Amy Ayers during a robbery at a store called I Can't Believe It's Yogurt. Also killed were Eliza Thomas, 17, and sisters Jennifer and Sarah Harbison, 15 and 17.

Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Paul Womack, writing for the majority, said Scott's statement should not have been admitted in Springsteen's trial because Scott did not testify and could not be cross-examined by Springsteen's lawyer.

The court said a 2004 opinion from the U.S. Supreme Court made it clear statements taken by police during interrogations fell under the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment.

Scott's statement contained chilling details about his actions in binding and gagging the girls, raping and shooting two of them in the head, and then using paper and lighter fluid to set the bodies on fire. While he did not implicate Springsteen, prosecutors used the statement to show similarities with a confession given by Springsteen.

Scott's conviction has been upheld by Austin's 3rd Court of Appeals and an appeal is pending at the Court of Criminal Appeals.

Charges were dismissed against two other men who were arrested in the case but did not confess.

Springsteen contended his confession was coerced and denied involvement.

"If I just make up a bunch of stories and tell them what they want to hear ... the evidence will show it couldn't have been me," said Springsteen, explaining to jurors his thinking at the time police interviewed him in Charleston, W.Va., where he lived with his wife.

Womack said Springsteen's repudiation of his confession "may have more than the usual weight." He noted two other men previously had confessed to the murders but police decided that neither committed the crime.

He also said leaks from the investigation included information that was supposed to be held from the public.

Mary Kay Sicola, who represented Springsteen on appeal, said she filed her appellate brief in the case 3 1/2 years ago.

"It's been an exceptionally long wait to get a ruling. For all the reasons, for the sake of the integrity of our justice system, the sake of our community, I'm just so happy the court has finally issued a ruling," she said.

Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle said his office is reviewing its options, which include an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court or retrying Springsteen

Sicola said Springsteen will be transported to Travis County while prosecutors decide.

Womack was joined by Judges Tom Price, Cheryl Johnson, Charles Holcomb and Cathy Cochran.

Presiding Judge Sharon Keller wrote a dissenting opinion, which was joined by Judges Mike Keasler and Barbara Hervey. Judge Lawrence Meyers also dissented.

Keller said Springsteen was unharmed by the admission of Scott's statement since he had made his own confession: "That confession was voluntary. (Springsteen) had no motive to confess falsely, and there was absolutely no reason for the jury to doubt the truthfulness of the confession. (Springsteen) knew that a .380 semi-automatic handgun was used in the murders, and this information was a closely guarded secret ... ."

The prosecution was hampered during both trials by the lack of any forensic evidence.

The Austin Police Department issued a statement that it "is confident in the guilt of Robert Springsteen" and will work with prosecutors to ensure he "continues to be held accountable for these horrific murders."

Police said their break in the case came in 1999 when a task force reviewed an interview police conducted with a 15-year-old. He told police he had a gun used in the killings.

Detectives had interviewed all four suspects in 1991 before concluding the 15-year-old was lying. But they reinterviewed the four, and obtained confessions from Scott and Springsteen.

janet.elliott@chron.com


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