Who Killed These Girls? is a true story about Austin criminal defense lawyers fighting to save three defendants—Robert Springsteen Jr., Michael Scott, and Maurice Pierce—from death sentences resulting from false confessions. It is about determined police detectives and prosecutors who felt pressured by the public to arrest someone and send them to the death chamber, and the media who daily headlined every detail of the progress of the case. It is about the families of the girls who died, and how the decade-long ordeal affected their lives. It is also about arrogance and egos and awards and commendations. It is a case study in the navigation of a legally and factually difficult high-profile case.
Austin author Beverly Lowry, who had previously published six novels and three nonfiction works, takes the reader inside the meeting rooms and into the thinking of the actors, from the first detective on the scene to the judge who banged the final gavel, but first she takes us back in time to the town of Austin in 1991.
At 11:30 pm on Friday, December 6, four young women, ages 13 to 17, were closing the I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt Shop in North Austin. Before midnight, before the girls could finish cleaning the tables, unknown persons entered the shop, raped the girls, shot them in the heads, set fire to the store, and disappeared into the night, never to be identified.
Lowry digs deep into the case to expose the investigative errors made by the police and prosecutors, critiques the various defendants’ attorneys for their missteps, and recounts Judge Mike Lynch’s decisions that resulted in the cases being reversed and eventually dismissed. She dedicates separate chapters to each victim, to each defendant, to each defense lawyer, to the judge, and to the stages of the police investigation. Lowry’s approach is more journalistic than literary, and she is unapologetically objective.
Lowry begins the account with Austin homicide detective John Jones, who launched an investigation the night of the murders that continued for five years and eventually included federal and state agents. It was an earnest but futile effort.
In 1996 the Cold Case unit, led by Detective Paul Johnson, took over the investigation. Lowry aptly names this investigation “The Paul Johnson Show,” which is what the Yogurt Shop Murder investigation became from that point on. Johnson was joined in his efforts by Detective Hector Palanco, who was later fired by APD for obtaining false confessions in other cases.
It wasn’t until 1999 that arrests were made of the three defendants and Forrest Wellborn, who was never charged. They were all in their early twenties by then. Although there was no physical evidence connecting any of them to the crime scene, two of them gave false confessions.
Lowry carefully analyzes the actions of the police and prosecutors during the Paul Johnson Show and attributes the blame for the investigative errors to Johnson’s “disease of certainty,” which was often based on unsubstantiated speculation.
Lowry puts the reader in the courtrooms to see Springsteen sentenced to death in 2001 and to follow Michael Scott’s trial, the longest-running criminal trial in Austin’s history.
Lowry’s writing is thorough if confusing at times. For instance, when mentioning dates she often gives only the month and day but not the year, which in a case that lasted over a decade can be confusing. In the chapter on Eliza Thomas, she doesn’t give the girl’s age (17) but informs us that she had “deep brown eyes and a wide, lush mouth . . .”
Still, the book is easily readable and holds one’s interest as it follows the investigative tactics and legal maneuvers that were necessary to extract confessions from innocent men and bring them to trial. At the end, Lowry allows the informed speculation of defense attorneys Carlos Garcia and Amber Farrelly about what really happened inside the Yogurt Shop that evening.
The question still left to be answered is, Who Killed These Girls?