When I first moved to Austin, Texas, I was introduced to the story of the Austin Yogurt Shop Murders. I had never heard of this event, but all the locals refer to it in a off-handed, almost casual sense when it comes up in conversation. You’ll hear things like “Oh yeah, that whole thing was a whole thing.” And “Yeah, that was just down the street there. Think it’s a Jimmy John’s nowadays.” I, a lifelong Houstonian, have a somewhat callous nature about me when it comes to hearing about horrific crimes. We are, after all, a murderous bunch down there. But the flippant nature of talk surrounding this event back in the 90’s took me by surprise.
The Yogurt Shop Murders are a prime example of one of the more bizarre aspects of human life, let alone criminal law: False Confessions. If you’ve never heard of this phenomenon (and that is the appropriate word for it) get out from under that rock and buckle in. This is going get weird. Turns out, people falsely confess to crimes on a pretty regular basis. There are a myriad of reasons for this, but for this particular blog we’ll focus on the false confessions associated with the Yogurt Shop Murders.
The cops had no idea who has behind the horrific and brutal deaths of 4 teenage girls in north Austin back in 1991. Seriously, no idea. 8 years passed. They finally arrested 4 men and charged all of them with the murders. The details behind what lead to the arrests vary depending on who you’re talking to, but what’s important to keep in mind is that none of the DNA collected at the scene matched any of these suspects. The police knew this, but they had to do something. So, basically, they interrogated these guys until they got what they wanted. They separated the men and interrogated them for hours and hours, with no lawyers present. They hinted at details of the crime that only the perps would know. The police lied and said the other suspects had snitched on the others. They also lied and said they had all the evidence they needed already, but just wanted to help them out and make things easier with a confession. “The DA will take it easy on you boys if you just face the music and give us a confession.” “Look, you’re in a heap of trouble, your friend next door already told us everything. Help me help you and sign this confession.”
This went on for hours and hours. No breaks. No food. No water. No lawyer.
Rinse, repeat and next thing you know you have 4 confessions! Let’s send these boys to the gas chamber! Not so fast. Charges against two of the suspects never made it past the grand jury. Two were convicted and sentenced to 99 years, only to have the Court of Criminal Appeals overturn the convictions and set them loose years later. So how exactly did the cops wrangle a false confession out of 4 innocent people? I harken to my favorite movie, The Shawshank Redemption, where Andy Dufresne is falsely convicted. “Pressure, and time. That’s all you need.”
The case remains unsolved to this day.