What do we actually know and how do we know it? Neuroscience teaches us that our brains are never still, even when we’re asleep and have plunged into dreams. Neurons still continue to spark and fly, jumping synapses, digging up memories, creating new ones, adding, subtracting, removing, revising. Until the story feels right. Correct. What we want it to be.
I remembered I had this book after hearing it mentioned on an episode of podcast My Favorite Murder broadcast from Austin, Texas. When they travel, they discuss local cases related to where they’re visiting, so the episode covered the historical Servant Girl Annihilator (my review of a book about that case, The Midnight Assassin) and the Yogurt Shop Murders, a contemporary case that’s already fading into history.
One night in 1991, four teenage girls, all close friends including two sisters, were closing up an I Can’t Believe it’s Yogurt shop in Austin. Eventually, police arrived on the scene to find a raging fire burning, a robbery had taken place, and the girls’ four bodies were stacked inside, naked, assaulted and burnt. It was absolutely horrific.
The case became mired in a bureaucratic nightmare of law enforcement mistakes and dramas, and a building pressure to resolve it for the families and the community when nearly a decade had passed without apprehended suspects.
It begins with background on the four girls, their families, hobbies, and what brought them to the scene of the crime that night. It progresses through police investigations, theories about memory and its fallibility, cases and prevalence of false or coerced confessions, and background on the suspects and how they came to be involved, plus the aftermath of their ordeal. It’s all very detailed, somewhat to a fault, and it comes across somewhat scattered in the structure. I think there was too much packed in, often not particularly necessary, but there’s important information layered within so I do think it’s worth a read.
The book’s core is how the investigation went wrong, especially how false confessions were coerced from uninvolved suspects who later went to trial, putting their families and the victims’ families through unimaginable stress and altering their lives permanently. All while somewhere, the actual killers still remain free and unknown.
The prosecution of the suspects in the Yogurt Shop murders is an absolute travesty, built on false confessions and prodding interviews where detectives led the young men to the facts they needed to fit the situation they had. That repulses me. I mean, that should go without saying and yet we hear this narrative all too often after it’s occurred.
There’s an excellent This American Life episode called “Kim Possible” where a false confession is heard as it plays out, and we learn how it came about and its aftermath. It’s so easy to say you would never go along with that investigatory prodding, you’d be insane to confess to something you didn’t do, especially a MURDER of all things, and yet a perfect storm of circumstances and interrogation tactics occurs and here we are.
A wrongfully convicted man in an unrelated case who confessed to a crime he didn’t commit is quoted here putting one part of this perfect storm into perspective: “It’s like you don’t have a choice. Life sentence, death penalty. Life sentence in prison…you’re going to die a slow death at an old age – or you’re going to die in the death chamber. It was no choice. You’re twenty-two years old. What do you do?”
And a cop’s perspective: “People say they’d never confess to something they didn’t do. Until you get put into a six-by-six room with no windows and two armed guys going at you, you don’t know what you’d do.”
I mention it because despite what I’ve heard and read about this phenomenon, I still struggle to comprehend it. And when you read this and get the full scope of the lack of evidence and the tactics and persuasions employed, your mind is re-blown on this topic.
An arson expert who testifies at trial is described as beginning “testifying in criminal cases in the late seventies, when he realized how often what he calls ‘witchcraft’ or ‘the black arts’ were still being applied to arson investigations.” Like I’ve said before, our justice system is so embarrassing sometimes. Granted that was the 70s, but still. That’s too recent to be lacking so much logic.
In 2011, a public safety commissioner pushed for the establishment of an “External Review Board” of experienced criminal investigators unconnected to Yogurt Shop that would put fresh eyes on cold cases, including this one. One element of his argument was “that in the UK, which has a 90 percent rate of homicide clearance, local departments are given one year to solve a crime, after which outside agencies are brought in, and compared this to the eight-year lag between the ICBY murders and the arrests and trials.”
You can guess whether his proposal was successful or not.
I appreciated Lowry’s writings on memory, one of the book’s strongest elements and one that’s very interesting to many true crime readers.
“How do we know what we know (or even remember) and when can we be, if not certain, at least reasonably persuaded that we’ve hit on the truthful version of what really happened? Maybe doubt is never reasonable and memories are closer to dreams than accurate recollections.”
As a sort of case study in false confessions and the unreliable nature of memory, this has some interesting elements. But it’s too bogged down with unnecessary and confusing details, too much difficult to process information in general. It’s a sad, complicated, mishandled case, but the book better serves as an expose about coerced confessions.
It came out last year, but a new, cheaper mass market edition was just published yesterday.
Who Killed These Girls?: Cold Case: The Yogurt Shop Murders
by Beverly Lowry
published October 11, 2016 by Knopf