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2 suspects freed in Texas yogurt shop slayings

Two men awaiting retrial in the 1991 killing of four teenage girls at a Texas yogurt shop are released from jail while prosecutors search for a match to new DNA evidence that didn't come from either of them.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Two men awaiting retrial in the 1991 killing of four teenage girls at an Austin yogurt shop were released from jail Wednesday while prosecutors search for a match to new DNA evidence that didn’t come from either of them.

After his release from the Travis County Jail, Michael Scott held hands with his wife, Jeannine, and hugged her but didn’t speak to reporters. Co-defendant Robert Springsteen said, “I’d like to thank God, my family and my attorney for this opportunity. Thank you.”

Their convictions at their first trials were overturned on appeal. Now, new DNA tests on evidence taken from the victims revealed the presence of an unknown male. Defense attorneys say that proves Scott’s and Springsteen’s innocence.

Prosecutors insist the DNA does not exonerate them as suspects and both still face capital murder charges.

Prosecutors want retrial delayed
State District Judge Mike Lynch’s order for the men’s release came during a hearing for Scott’s retrial, which was scheduled for July 6. Prosecutors asked that the trial be delayed until 2010 while they try to determine the source of the DNA.

Conditions of their release include staying in Travis County and avoiding contact with witnesses or the victims’ families.

Scott, now 35, was sentenced to life in prison, and Springsteen, now 34, was originally sent to death row for the death of one of the girls, Amy Ayers, 13.

Ayers; Eliza Thomas, 17; and sisters Jennifer and Sarah Harbison, ages 17 and 15, were bound, gagged and shot in the head at the “I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt” store where two of the girls worked. The building was then set afire.

Police chased thousands of leads and received several false confessions. Springsteen, Scott and two other men were arrested in 1999. Charges against the two other were eventually dropped, and they are not implicated by the new DNA test.

Although Scott will be out of jail for the first time in nearly 10 years, his wife was angered by the delay.

“The big day will be when 12 people declare my husband not guilty so that this nightmare for our family is over,” Jeannine Scott said.

Convictions overturned
Scott and Springsteen initially confessed, and each man implicated the other. But both men quickly recanted and said their statements were made under pressure by police.

The convictions were overturned because in each case, the defense had been unable to cross-examine the co-defendant about his purported confession.

Springsteen, who was 17 when the girls were killed, had been sentenced to death, but the U.S. Supreme Court later banned execution of defendants who were juveniles at the time of the crime. The new DNA tests were conducted in 2008 using technology not available during the defendents’ first trials.

Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg said investigators have conducted at least 100 new DNA tests and need more time to keep testing. She suggested a previously unknown fifth suspect participated with them in the crime.

A key element of Springsteen’s confession was admitting sexually assaulting Ayers. Now prosecutors face a DNA sample that doesn’t match his confession.

“I could not in good conscience allow this case to go to trial before the identity of this male donor is determined and the full truth is known,” Lehmberg said. “I remain confident that both Robert Springsteen and Michael Scott are responsible for the death at the yogurt shop.”

Springsteen’s attorney, Jim Sawyer, scoffed at the suggestion of a fifth suspect. He said there was never a suggestion of a fifth suspect during the original trials.

“The state continues to refer to it as ’the fifth man.’ They’re wrong,” Sawyer said. “It is the first man. That’s the man who raped and killed Amy Ayers.”