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Cold Case: The Yogurt Shop Murders

by Beverly Lowry

Pub Date: Oct. 11th, 2016
ISBN: 978-0-307-59411-2
Publisher: Knopf

An exhaustive examination of an unsolved 1991 murder of four teenage girls at a frozen yogurt shop in Austin, Texas.

The girls had all been shot, their bodies were incinerated at the back of the shop, and one or more of them was raped. For years, Austin police and prosecutors investigated relentlessly without arrests, while the families of the four victims (two of them sisters) mourned, journalists broadcast and published multiple new twists as well as speculation, and four teenage boys feared they would become defendants because one of them had stupidly talked aloud, implicating himself and three acquaintances—maybe truthfully or maybe falsely. Lowry (Harriet Tubman: Imagining a Life, 2007, etc.) painstakingly explains why the original homicide detective never felt confident enough about the evidence to arrest anybody but how a later investigator believed in the guilt of the four males and manipulated evidence to fit his theory. Prosecutors eventually accepted enough of the shaky evidence to charge two of the males. In separate jury trials, they obtained convictions. A third suspect was arrested but never tried. The fourth suspect, the alleged ringleader who had spoken out, sat in jail for years without being tried and eventually won release on a legal technicality but died a decade later while trying to escape police after a traffic stop that escalated. Lowry did not begin studying the case until 2009, but she immersed herself so deeply that she produces an encyclopedic book. She examines countless imperfect theories about the crime without reaching a definitive answer. Along the way, the author explains various phenomena related to wrongful convictions in hundreds of other cases, including why some suspects confess to crimes they never committed. In the yogurt shop case, two of the male suspects did confess after high-pressure interrogations by police detectives, then later recanted their confessions and sought acquittal at their trials.

A grisly primer on criminal justice in the byzantine American system—will appeal to true-crime aficionados but likely not a larger audience.