On May 25, 2006, I first posted about the Yogurt Shop Murder case, one of the most controversial confession cases in the annals of false confessions. Four young men were charged with murdering four teenage girls in December 1991 who worked at the Austin TX "I Can't Believe It's Yogurt Shop." The four men were Maurice Pierce (believed by police to be the ringleader), Forrest Wellborn (believed to be the driver), Robert Springsteen IV and Michael Scott. The investigation was at a standstill in 1999 when members of a cold case squad interviewed Springsteen and Scott and after hours of intense and highly coercive interrogations obtained confessions from the two which also named Pierce and Wellborn.
Prosecutors were only able to secure convictions against Scott and Sprongsteen and were forced to drop charges against Pierce and Wellborn. In the May post, I reported that Springsteen's conviction had been overturned because prosecutors introduced portions of Scott's confession at Springsteen's trial without giving Springsteen the chance to cross-examine Scott, a practice now outlawed by the United States Supreme Court in Crawford v. Washington.
Prosecutors used the same tactic in Scott's case and now his conviction has been reversed as well. This makes the record for prosecutors in the Yogurt Shop case 0 for 4 (which may be a blessing if the boys are indeed innocent.)
The 5-4 opinion reveals a sharply divided court and at least four judges who need additional education about the issue of coerced persuaded/internalized false confessions. The majority of the court, in an opinion written by the Chief Justice Tom Price, rejected the lower court's belief that the admission of the co-defendant's statements was harmless.
Without the corroborating statements from Springsteen, jurors could reasonably have determined that key portions of Scott's confession were known to the public or suggested to him by the interrogating police officers, Price wrote. Viewing the videotape of Scott's confession, Price wrote that numerous details in the confession were open to question, including:
•Scott's knowledge that two weapons were used in the crime. Scott first told police that Pierce had a .38-caliber revolver and then said it may have been a .22-caliber pistol. Police encouraged Scott to believe the gun was a .22, which more closely fit the facts of the crime, Price wrote.
•Scott's knowledge that one of the teens was still alive after she was shot. "It was the detectives who first suggested to the appellant that 'one of the girls . . . was shot twice.' Only after this suggestion did (Scott) first remember that Springsteen shot one of the girls a second time," Price wrote.
•Scott's statement that the shop's front doors were locked, and that a key had been left in the lock, was information that firefighters may have disseminated to the public, Price said.
•The teens were found naked and bound with articles of their own clothing, but when first questioned, Scott repeatedly said he remembered they had been tied with an electrical cord. Only after a detective intimated that the girls were unclothed did Scott confess that they were stripped naked and tied with their clothes, Price said.
•When booked into jail, Scott was asked whether he had ever considered killing himself. He answered yes — on Dec. 6, 1991, the day of the yogurt shop murders. Prosecutors said the statement implicated Scott beyond his confession to police. But, Price wrote, "the jury might also reasonably have discounted this evidence as nothing more than confabulation on the appellant's part — another unreliable by-product of . . . faulty memory-enhancing techniques used by the police."
In a dissenting opinion joined by three colleagues, Presiding Judge Sharon Keller attacked the majority's reasoning.
"The court faults the police for using leading questions that suggested the answers they wanted (Scott) to give. But why would leading questions motivate appellant to confess falsely to involvement in such a serious crime?" Keller said, saying that Scott was not a mental weakling and that he frequently disagreed with statements made by interrogating officers.
"A leading question should not so massively corrupt (Scott's) memory as to make him believe he was involved in a crime that he was not in fact involved in," Keller wrote.
It wasn't the leading questions that corrupted his memory but the preceding interrogation techniques which caused Scott to doubt his own memory and to come to believe that he might have committed the crime. For example:When Scott could not tell his interrogators precisely what Pierce had said, they insisted that he did remember, and described for him a process they called “revivification,” whereby the mind is like a VCR in which memory is stored, “and you have the ability to bring that stuff back if you think about it hard enough and you clear your head of all this other stuff.”
This is an extremely dangerous techniques that can cause a suspect to conjure up false memories.
Other warning signs that the confession was false include the fact that Scott remained unsure throughout the interrogation about whether he actually remembered what he was saying or whether he was using information he gained from the police to concoct the story they wanted to hear. During the course of his interviews, he frequently complained to the detectives that he did not know whether what he was telling them constituted accurate memory or just his best guess as to what they wanted him to say.
At one point, Scott remarked in frustration: “I don't remember doing any of this shit.”
For more information, see http://keyetv.com/local/local_story157110712.html