AUSTIN (KXAN) - Charges against Michael Scott and Robert Springsteen - accused in the infamous "Yogurt Shop" murders - were dropped Wednesday after prosecutors told a judge their case against the men was too weak.
"Given that we now have unknown DNA evidence in the case, I believe it would be imprudent and in fact unfair to proceed to trial at this time," Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg said immediately after the hearing.
After being convicted, sentenced to both life and death, and their cases overturned, the two men are free of any charges - for now. Judge Mike Lynch granted Lehmberg's request to drop the charges at about 1:40 p.m., just a few minutes after the start of the hearing.
"We will continue to live our lives as a family, spend time with our loved ones, and pursue what the constitution promises everyone in this country: Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," said Jeannine Scott, Michael Scott's wife. "I hope the state and the police department of Austin realize this is a prime opportunity for them to continue their investigation."
Michael Scott simply said his plan is to "move forward."
"That's all I have,:" he said. "Move forward."
On Dec. 6, 1991, police found the four teenage girls bound, gagged and burned, some atop each other, at the I Can't Believe It's Yogurt! shop on Anderson Lane.
The state said it still can't identify a match for DNA found at the scene of the grisly 1991 homicides in North Austin. Investigators are still trying to find the person who matches DNA discovered years after the killings with technology that was not available during the first trial - in which the men were convicted - that was later overturned.
"Those men that did this back in 19-91 they left DNA in there," said Carlos Garcia, the attorney for Michael Scott. "I don't know where you guys are at, but we have your DNA and sooner of later, we're going to match your face to it."
The decision in the 167th district court happened around 1:40 p.m. on Wednesdy, in a hearing meant to determine whether the men will go to trial or whether the charges would be dropped.
"Glad to be were I am now," said Micahel Scott. "This has been a long time coming and I am happy to be here."
DA Rosemary Lehmberg has scheduled a news conference for the media directly after the hearing. Police Chief Art Acevedo was present when the hearing started.
While the charges could be refiled later on if stronger evidence is gathered, a trial is a bigger gamble with a weak case: If the men are found innocent, they can't stand trial again on the same charges. They have a constitutional right against what's called "double jeopardy."
The two suspects were released from jail in June after 10 years behind bars, when a judge allowed the prosecutors to postpone the trial. With that ruling, the men were allowed to leave jail on a personal recognizance bond.
Springsteen and Scott are accused of raping and murdering four teenage girls at the I Can't Believe It's Yogurt! shop in North Austin in 1991. Much of the evidence at the crime scene was destroyed when the perpetrators set it on fire.
In June, Lehmberg said she believed that when they find the match to the DNA, they will have found an accomplice to Springsteen and Scott - not an exoneration of the two men.
"I remain confident that Robert Springsteen and Michael Scott are both responsible for the deaths in the yogurt shop," she said in June.
The following is the complete statement from Lehmberg on Wednesday:
Today I presented to Judge Mike Lynch motions to dismiss the cases against Robert Springsteen and Michael Scott, the defendants in the murder of four teenage girls at the Yogurt Shop on December 6, 1991. Judge Lynch has signed the orders dismissing those cases.
While preparing for trial in March 2008, we submitted various evidentiary items for YSTR analysis, a relatively new method that looks for male DNA only. That testing revealed the full YSTR profile of one male whose identity and involvement in this case was unknown to us. Since this discovery we have tested samples from many individuals, but the identity of this man still remains unknown to us.
At this time, we have two options:
1. Dismiss the case pending further investigation; or
2. Proceed to trial
In June of this year we filed the State's first motion for continuance in this case, based upon the fact that we could not identify the unknown donor and we needed more time for testing and investigation. Judge Lynch granted our motion for continuance. On August 11th, Judge Lynch issued a written order stating that he would not grant another delay in the case if we again requested more time based upon the same grounds for continuance.
Therefore, because the male donor's identity is still not known, we have no choice but to announce that we are not ready to proceed to trial and ask for a dismissal of the cases pending further investigation.
Make no mistake, this is a difficult decision for me and one I would rather not have to make. I believe it is the best legal and strategic course to take and is the one that leaves us in the best possible posture to ultimately retry both Springsteen and Scott.
The following is a timeline for the case surrounding the yogurt shop murders in December 1991:
Yogurt-shop murder case timeline
December 6, 1991: Police find four teenage girls bound, gagged and burned, some atop each other, at the I Can't Believe It's Yogurt! shop on Anderson Lane. They were later determined to have been raped and murdered. All were friends, two were sisters and one of the girls worked there. They were closing up for the night before it happened.
* Amy Ayers, 13
* Sarah Harbison, 15
* Jennifer Harbison, 17
* Eliza Thomas, 17
December 1991: Police discover a gun on Maurice Pierce that became a catalyst for pursuing the four defendants in the case.
September 9, 1999: Michael Scott talks to police and is interrogated for more than 18 hours, and police say his confession explains it all: The boys were trying to rob the yogurt shop when it turned deadly. Scott implicates Springsteen, who points the finger back at Scott later. (Defense attorneys will later allege investigators fed Scott details that he repeated under pressure, including how he held the gun to the girl's head. Defense attorneys claim it is a coerced confession.)
September 14, 1999: Michael Scott gives police a written statement about what happened at the yogurt shop the night of the murders.
October 6, 1999: Community and national pressure builds, but police arrest four suspects in connection with the case nearly eight years after the crime and hundreds of suspects throughout the years, including "devil worshippers" and so-called "people in black." Police arrested the men in the following places:
* Michael Scott in Austin
* Robert Springsteen in Charleston, W. Va.
* Maurice Pierce in Lewisville, Texas
* Forest Welborn in Lockhart, Texas
December 14, 1999: After a five-hour videotaped interview confession from Robert Springsteen and Michael Scott's written statement, District Judge Jeanne Meurer is convinced the there is probable cause and certified Maurice Pierce and Forest Welborn as adults. Robert Springsteen is indicted on four counts of capital murder.
December 28, 1999: Robert Springsteen, Michael Scott and Maurice Pierce are indicted on capital murder charges.
May 2, 2000: The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms released a report finding the gun discovered on Maurice Pierce in December 1991 was probably not the murder weapon after all. Officers begin scouring the Colorado River under the Loop 360 bridge, looking for the gun that both Michael Scott and Robert Springsteen said may have been dumped the night of the murders. In the nine years since the murders, six floods have washed out the river.
May 16, 2000: Det. Paul Johnson says an APD ballistics expert told him back in January 1999 that Maurice Pierce's .22-caliber gun was almost certainly not the murder weapon.
June 30, 2000: A Texas Department of Public Safety report shows that none of the boys' DNA was found at the crime scene, even after testing for rape, checking fingernails and examining mucus found under one of the girls. Judge Jon Wisser throws out all four charges against Forest Welborn, and Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle drops the case against Welborn after two grand juries fail to indict him.
May 2001: A Travis County jury convicts Robert Springsteen of the murders and sends him to death row.
September 2002: Jury convicts Michael Scott and sentences him to life in prison.
January 2003: Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle says there is not enough physical evidence or testimony to keep Maurice Pierce in jail or to warrant a trial, and all charges against Pierce are dropped. Pierce is set free and moves out of Austin.
June 2005: Because the U.S. Supreme Court ruled convicted killers 17 years old and younger cannot be executed, Gov. Rick Perry commutes Robert Springsteen's death sentence to life in prison.
May 2006: The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturns Robert Springsteen's capital murder conviction on the basis that he never got to confront his accuser in court, sending the case back to a Travis County court. Meanwhile, Michael Scott's appeal is pending.
February 2007: The Travis County District Attorney's appeal of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals' ruling is shot down by the U.S. Supreme Court, and Robert Springsteen is on his way to a new trial.
June 2007: The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturns Michael Scott's capital murder conviction on the basis that he never got to confront his accuser in court, sending the case back to a Travis County court.
March 2008: State lab testing shows unknown male DNA on swabs taken from victim Amy Ayers.
April 15, 2008: Jury decides to let the defense test clothing for semen.
April 17, 2008: Prosecution says a DNA sample found in new tests cannot be linked to Robert Springsteen or Michael Scott.
May 2, 2008: Austin police arrest former murder suspect Maurice Pierce on charges of resisting arrest and assault on a police officer.
May 28, 2008: Michael Scott spears in court for a pretrial hearing after he and Robert Springsteen are being retried in the case.
July 15, 2008: District judge gives prosecutors three days to provide defense attorneys information about the results of new DNA testing in the murders.
August 20, 2008: Judge Mike Lynch refuses to lift a protective order after defense attorneys for Robert Springsteen and Michael Scott say that the gag order will not allow them to talk about the case.
September 17, 2008: Robert Springsteen and Michael Scott are in court for another pretrial hearing, and their attorneys ask for new DNA testing of the physical evidence gathered at the crime scene. Judge Mike Lynch tells the two sides to narrow down the list of items to test so that taxpayer dollars won't be wasted on irrelevant items to the case.
December 2008: Officials test DNA from the murder scene, and defense attorneys for Robert Springsteen and Michael Scott argue there is no DNA evidence linking the men to the crime. Defense attorneys cite the only evidence prosecutors have is the coerced confessions. Defense said the men were convicted because it was a trial of emotion.
January 7, 2009: Despite new DNA evidence in the yogurt-shop murders case, the trials of Michael Scott and Robert Springsteen move forward as protesters gather outside the Travis County Justice Complex hoping charges against the men might be dismissed. New DNA testing revealed DNA of an unknown man found on three of the four teen girls does not match either of the two men.
March 17, 2009: After attorneys for the murder suspects met with a judge to discuss the implications of new DNA testing that places an unknown man at the scene, the judge took no action. Defense attorneys plan to get the suspects released on a writ bond.
June 18, 2009: Robert Springsteen's attorneys present District Judge Mike Lynch with the results of new DNA lab testing and say the results prove his client did not commit the murders. He asks the judge to release his client on bond while he awaits trial.
June 22, 2009: Travis County District Judge Mike Lynch denies a bond reduction for Robert Springsteen, ruling against his motion to have his bond reduced while awaiting trial.
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