Photo: Clockwise from top Amy Ayers, Eliza Thomas, Jennifer Harbison and her sister, Sarah Harbison.
Unfortunately, even under the best of circumstances, prosecuting murder cases is not a neat process. There are motions, pretrial hearings and delays, all of which add to the difficulties faced by families of both the victims and defendants. Still, few cases involve more delays, more confusion and wrenching emotional pain than the one in Austin, Texas known simply as the "Yogurt Shop murders."
I know this case as well as anyone. I have been working on it for almost as long as I have worked for CBS News!
Photo: Austin, Texas authorities investigate the murder of four teenage girls inside a yogurt shop in December 1991.
The brutal murders of four young girls in a suburban yogurt shop occurred on Dec. 6, 1991. I started reporting on the case just weeks later. At the time, I was new to "48 Hours." Today, 18 years later and now a veteran on the show, I am still reporting on the case with no end in sight!
What went wrong? Just about everything.
The facts of the case are horrific. The four young victims were closing up when their attackers entered the shop. Eliza Thomas, Amy Ayers and sisters Elizabeth and Sarah Harbison (pictured above) were then stripped, tied up, sexually assaulted, shot at close range and then burned. Imagine any crime more vicious than that, especially when you take into account how young the girls were, ranging in age from 17 to 13 years old!
The community of Austin, understandably horrified and terrified by the case, demanded a thorough investigation, but there were serious problems from the outset: The crime scene was contaminated by the firemen and emergency personnel at the scene. Water used to put out the flames also washed away evidence. Evidence and information supposed to be withheld from the public leaked out.
Some problems with the investigation were self-inflicted. After the original investigators, John Jones and Mike Huckabay, were removed from the case and replaced by fresh eyes, Jones and Huckabay were completely shut out. Although they knew the most about the early days of the case, they weren't even consulted when arrests finally were made.
The result: a case with so many legal twists, turns and detours, you need a map to follow it. As a reporter, I was there to witness most of it.
First, the stalled investigation: there were eight long years with no arrests. Then in 1999, four men who had been teenagers at the time of the murder were arrested and charged. As time went on, one by one the cases against the four defendants ran into roadblocks. Two of the men "confessed" to the murders and were eventually indicted and charged, but because there was so little evidence against the others, they were never indicted and charges were dropped.
The two men, whom investigators say confessed, are Michael Scott and Robert Springsteen. Their taped statements sound credible. Yet, they contain incorrect details and, at times, the two men seem to "parrot" their interrogators. More troubling, there is no physical evidence to back up these statements. Nonetheless, both men were eventually convicted at trial: Springsteen was sentenced to death, Scott got life. And even then, the case didn't come to an end.
In line with a U.S. Supreme Court decision dealing with teenagers who commit violent crimes, Springsteen's death sentence was commuted to life. And then an even more shocking development: both verdicts were completely thrown out and the men were granted new trials!
As the families of the murdered girls prepared to go through the wrenching experience of sitting through new trials, the prosecutor made an admission that changed everything yet once again. It turns out that there was some evidence gathered at the crime scene in 1991 - vaginal swabs of the girls - that could now be tested for DNA. Austin District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg ordered the DNA tests in hopes that she could obtain more evidence against Springsteen and Scott. She got results alright: DNA belonging to an unknown male. DNA results that don't match either of the two men on trial or the other two who were once arrested but never tried. It's a whole new wrench in the works that threatens to stop the process entirely.
There will be no new trials for Robert Springsteen and Michael Scott, at least not in the near future. Last fall, DA Lehmberg asked that charges be dropped against the two men. She still thinks they're guilty, she says, but she can't try them until she identifies that new DNA. Does it mean that there was a fifth man the night of the murder who assisted Springsteen and Scott? Or has the DA had it wrong all along? Were innocent men convicted of the Yogurt Shop murders?
There's both a benefit and curse working a case for this long. The benefit is that you know a lot about the case, the participants trust you and will talk to you. The flip side of that is the curse: You are there as the families, investigators, and even the defendants suffer with each new development. The pain of the parents is nearly as great as it was 18 years ago. When I interviewed Eliza Thomas's mom, Maria, and the Harbison girls' mother, Barbara, I cried along with them.
I wonder how the case is going to end. I wonder if the justice system will some day keep its promise to catch the killers and give the families some peace.
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