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A 2-year-old U.S. Supreme Court decision has led to a reversal in a 15-year-old Austin murder case. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has thrown out the conviction of a man serving a life sentence for killing one of four teenage girls slain in a yogurt shop. As a result of the May 24 decision, Travis County prosecutors face the prospect of retrying Robert Springsteen IV, who, according to the CCA’s majority opinion, confessed that he was involved in the 1991 murders but later repudiated his confession. However, rather than concentrating on the confession, the CCA’s 5-4 decision in Springsteen v. Statefocuses on the state’s introduction at trial of excerpts from co-defendant Michael Scott’s 1999 statement to police about the murders in the I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt shop. [See the and dissent.] The CCA reversed Springsteen’s capital murder conviction based on the Supreme Court’s 2004 decision in Crawford v. Washington, which prohibits the admission of “testimonial evidence” from a witness who is not available for the defense to cross-examine at trial. Backing away from its 1980 decision in Ohio v. Roberts, which allowed admission of testimonial evidence if a judge deemed the statements reliable or rooted in a well-established exception to the hearsay rule, the Supreme Court held in Crawfordthat a defendant has a right under the Sixth Amendment’s confrontation clause to confront a witness against him. [See the Crawfordopinionand concurrence.] In Crawford, prosecutors in Olympia, Wash., used a tape-recorded statement from a man’s wife to prove that he had stabbed an unarmed man. Because of the marital privilege, the wife did not testify at her husband’s trial, and the Supreme Court overturned the assault conviction in a 9-0 decision. Scott, who also is serving a life sentence for his part in the yogurt shop murders, and Springsteen both exercised their Fifth Amendment right not testify at each other’s trials. [ See "The Crawford Questions,"Texas Lawyer , June 21, 2004, page 1.] CCA Judge Paul Womack, author of the majority opinion, wrote that Scott’s confession to police was exactly the kind of testimonial statement the Supreme Court held in Crawford to be prohibited by the confrontation clause. “We cannot say, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the admission of Scott’s statements did not affect the jury’s determination of [Springsteen's] guilt,” Womack wrote for the majority. Judges Tom Price, Cheryl Johnson, Charles Holcomb and Cathy Cochran joined Womack in the decision. Womack wrote in the opinion that Springsteen’s repudiation of his confession “may have more than the usual weight” because many so-called “nonpublic facts” were widely known. One way to determine whether a confession is truthful is whether the suspect confesses to facts that law enforcement has withheld from the public. According to the opinion, Springsteen’s defense introduced at trial two other men’s confessions that contained nonpublic “holdback facts.” Mary Kay Sicola, Springsteen’s attorney on direct appeal, says there were approximately 50 confessions to the yogurt shop murders. CCA Presiding Judge Sharon Keller wrote in a dissenting opinion that she believes a comprehensive examination of the testimony, including Springsteen’s confession, reveals that, beyond a reasonable doubt, Scott’s testimony did not contribute to the jury’s verdict. Judges Mike Keasler and Barbara Hervey joined Keller in the dissent. Judge Lawrence Meyers also dissented. David Botsford, an Austin criminal-defense attorney who was not involved in the yogurt shop case, says the majority is right on the law. “Had the Court of Criminal Appeals not followed the law, which they are sworn to do, I believe this case would have been busted by the [U.S.] Supreme Court on certiorari and/or the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit on a federal writ of habeas corpus,” says Botsford, principal in the Law Offices of David Botsford. Although Crawford gained attention when the high court handed it down, Sicola believes the line of cases preceding Crawford clearly indicated that Scott’s statement should not have been admitted. Sicola says she believes the case law was clear before Crawford that prosecutors can’t introduce out-of-court statements by a co-defendant who won’t appear at trial. Springsteen’s brief to the CCA cites the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1999 decision in Lilly v. Virginia. In Lilly, the high court reversed the Virginia Supreme Court’s ruling that a man’s confession implicating his brother in a murder was admissible as a “firmly rooted exception” to hearsay. The Supreme Court plurality in Lilly concluded that such statements violate the confrontation clause. Botsford says the Supreme Court had “muddied the waters” with its 1980 ruling in Ohio v. Roberts. The high court held in Roberts that a trial court can admit the out-of-court statement of a witness who is unavailable at trial, if the court finds the statement bears “particularized guarantees of truthfulness” or it falls within a “firmly rooted hearsay exception.” Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley doesn’t see any disagreement among CCA judges about the applicability of Crawford. He says the inference from the majority and dissenting opinions in Springsteen is that the only question the CCA decided is whether Springsteen was harmed by Scott’s statement. Issues involving harm are matters of judgment, he says. “Reasonable minds can have different opinions about that,” Bradley says, but adds that he doesn’t have a problem with how the court ruled. The CCA remanded Springsteen’s case to the 167th District Court for further action. Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle says in a written statement that his office is reviewing the CCA’s decision and the issues it presents. “After our review, we will decide on the appropriate course of action,” Earle says. Bryan Case, director of the appellate division in Earle’s office, says prosecutors have three options. Case says prosecutors can file a motion for rehearing with the CCA. If the court denies the motion, prosecutors can file a petition for writ of certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court. Prosecutors also can re-try Springsteen, he says. The DA’s office has filed motions for rehearing in more than 50 percent of its cases reversed by the CCA or a court of appeals, Case says. Sicola says she is grateful the CCA has finally issued the opinion in Springsteen. “It was a three-and-a-half year wait from the time we filed our brief,” says Sicola, who was an Austin solo at the time she was appointed to represent Springsteen. A wait of that length doesn’t benefit anyone, she adds. The victims in the yogurt shop murders were Eliza Thomas, 17; Amy Ayers, 13; Jennifer Harbison, 17; and Sarah Harbison, 15. Springsteen was convicted for Ayers’ murder. The jury had sentenced Springsteen to die by lethal injection, but Gov. Rick Perry commuted his sentence to life in prison, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2005′s Roper v. Simmonsthat executing offenders for crimes they committed as juveniles is unconstitutional. Springsteen was 17 at the time of the murders.

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