Colton Pitonyak

Colton Pitonyak, a former UT student convicted for the 2005 slaying and dismemberment of 21-year-old Jennifer Cave in his West Campus apartment, was denied a new trial Wednesday by the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

For six years, Pitonyak’s lawyers have unsuccessfully appealed the case based on an alternative-perpetrator theory. Pitonyak’s counsel has long claimed that his accomplice, former UT student Laura Hall, murdered Cave, citing confessions Hall made to fellow inmates while in prison.

The Fifth Circuit agreed to review Pitonyak’s case based on claims that prosecutors withheld evidence containing Hall’s confessions during the initial trial in 2007. Pitonyak was granted a hearing in August based on a subsequent Brady violation — a federal violation denying a defendant due process — which the judge called “perplexing and [deserving] of further review,” according to an official court document. 

“Given the jailhouse context of Hall’s confession and its lack of corroboration and detail, the state court reasonably could have concluded that Hall’s statement could not overcome the overwhelming problems with an alternate-perpetrator theory,” the court said in Wednesday’s opinion.

Chris Perri, one of Pitonyak’s lawyers, said he is disappointed by the court’s decision, but maintains that the case is alive and well and plans to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Pitonyak is currently serving a 55-year prison sentence for the murder and mutilation of Cave, who was found shot and dismembered in a bathtub at Pitonyak’s West Campus apartment.

Hall, a friend of Pitonyak’s who is described as his jealous lover by court documents, is currently serving a 10-year sentence for tampering with evidence. Both fled to Mexico following the murder and were apprehended by authorities during their attempt to cross the border back into the U.S.

Attorneys say recent developments in a case involving a 2005 West Campus murder could be the first step toward a retrial, and previously withheld evidence suggests the possibility of an alternative perpetrator. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals granted Colton Pitonyak’s attorneys an expedited appeal process and mandated oral argument on the basis of a Brady violation on April 22.

Pitonyak’s lawyers say they are “cautiously optimistic” about the “biggest” developments since the original Brady appeal was granted on March 12.

Pitonyak, a former UT student, is currently serving a 55-year prison sentence for the 2005 murder and mutilation of then-21-year-old Jennifer Cave, who was found shot and dismembered in a bathtub at Pitonyak’s West Campus apartment. Former UT student Laura Ashley Hall, a friend of Pitonyak’s who is described as his jealous lover according to court documents, is currently serving a 10-year sentence for tampering with evidence. Both fled to Mexico following the murder and were apprehended by authorities during their attempt to cross the border back into the U.S.

Pitonyak’s attorneys have long suspected Hall is responsible for Cave’s murder, citing evidence suggesting Hall confessed to the murder on multiple occasions.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed to review Pitonyak’s case based on claims that the state withheld evidence containing Hall’s confessions during the initial trial in 2007. Pitonyak’s attorneys were granted a hearing based on a subsequent Brady violation, which the judge called “perplexing and [deserving] of further review,” according to an official court document.

The U.S. Attorney General’s office must file their own brief by the end of May and oral arguments over the materiality of the Brady violation will begin at the end of August. Chris Perri, one of Pitonyak’s defense attorneys, said mandated oral argument is a positive and rare occurrence within the federal appeal process.

“We file the first appeal, and a month later the other side has their opportunity,” Perri said. “Because the appeal is expedited, the other side can’t get extensions. It’s a good sign when oral argument is granted. It’s rare, only 10 percent of cases do.”

Pitonyak’s lawyers will have to prove that the withheld evidence could have had an impact in the original jury’s verdict, denying Pitonyak his right to due process — a federal constitutional violation. If they succeed, then the prosecuting attorneys have the option to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Perri said the Supreme Court only hears one percent of appeal cases. Pitonyak will be granted a new trial at the 147th State District Court in Austin if the prosecutors fail to successfully appeal the case to the Supreme Court.

“Even though we won’t be raising every issue pertaining to the trial during oral argument, the judges will still be looking at the entire trial,” Perri said. “We’re not having to prove Colton’s innocence in August. We just have to prove the withheld evidence undermined the jury’s verdict. Juries are unpredictable. We can’t know what the jury would have done if the Brady evidence was presented.” 

Printed on Tuesday, April 30, 2013 as: Inmate may see retrial for local 2005 murder

Colton Pitonyak's attorneys granted expedited appeal

After citing an alleged Brady violation, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted Colton Pitonyak's attorneys mandated oral argument and an expedited appeal process. 

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed to review Pitonyak’s case based on claims that an investigatory arm of the state withheld the exculpatory evidence containing Hall’s confessions during his initial trial in 2007. Pitonyak’s attorneys were granted a hearing based on a subsequent Brady violation, which according to an official court document filed on March 12 is “perplexing and [deserving] of further review.” 

Pitonyak, a former UT student, is currently serving a 55-year prison sentence for the 2005 murder and mutilation of then-21-year-old Jennifer Cave, who was found shot and dismembered in a bathtub at Pitonyak’s West Campus apartment. Former UT student Laura Ashley Hall, a friend of Pitonyak’s who is described as his jealous lover according to court documents, is currently serving a 10-year sentence for tampering with evidence. Both fled to Mexico following the murder and were apprehended by authorities during their attempt to cross the border back into the U.S. 

Pitonyak's attorneys have long suspected Hall is responsible for Cave's murder, citing a slew of evidence suggesting Hall confessed to the murder on multiple occasions.

Chris Perri, one of Pitonyak's legal representatives, said oral argument has been scheduled for August 27 in Austin. The opposing party's brief is due May 28. 

"The [mandated] oral argument and expediting order [are] a positive step forward," Perri said. "We don't want to get ahead of ourselves, but we're cautiously optimistic about these developments." 

Former UT student Colton Pitonyak may receive a new trial six years after being convicted of slaying Austin resident Jennifer Cave at his West Campus apartment in 2005. 

Following a host of ill-fated appeals made since Pitonyak’s conviction, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, subordinate only to the U.S. Supreme Court, granted Pitonyak a hearing scheduled for April 22, according to Joseph A. Turner and Christopher Perri, Pitonyak’s attorneys.

“Our next step is preparing a brief that’s due on April 22. After that, the government will respond with their own brief. The court will either rule on the briefs alone or mandate oral argument,” Turner said, delineating his and Perri’s next step toward receiving a new trial for their client. 

Pitonyak is currently serving a 55-year prison sentence for the 2005 murder and mutilation of then-21-year-old Cave, who was found shot and dismembered in a bathtub at Pitonyak’s West Campus apartment. Former UT student Laura Ashley Hall, a friend of Pitonyak’s who is described as his jealous lover according to court documents, is currently serving a 10-year sentence for tampering with evidence. Both fled to Mexico following the murder, and were apprehended by authorities during their attempt to cross the border back into the U.S. 

In past appeals, Pitonyak’s lawyers claimed Hall murdered Cave, not Pitonyak. According to his defense attorneys, Pitonyak was under the influence of alcohol and Xanax the night of the murder and has no recollection of the incident. 

“Pitonyak couldn’t form any memories. To this day, he’s looking, trying to figure out what happened. He even wanted to get a hypnotist. I don’t think he understands that even hypnosis can’t make you recall a memory that was never formed,” Perri said. 

Pitonyak’s council now claims to have acquired previously withheld exculpatory evidence which suggests Hall confessed to murdering Cave while in prison. Pitonyak’s attorneys now have signed affidavits from two inmates, Christie Freeman and Olena Grayson, claiming Hall confessed to killing and dismembering Cave. The same affidavits claim that Hall expressed hatred toward Cave because of an instance of infidelity involving Hall’s boyfriend. 

According to her affidavit, Grayson claims to have remembered Hall displaying an unsettling lack of remorse regarding the murder and claiming “the only eerie part was the sound of cutting through the bone.” 

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed to review Pitonyak’s case based on claims that an investigatory arm of the state withheld the exculpatory evidence containing Hall’s confessions during his initial trial in 2007. Pitonyak’s attorneys were granted a hearing based on a subsequent “Brady violation,” which according to an official court document filed on March 12 is “perplexing and [deserving] of further review.” 

“If there’s anything to be learned from this, it’s that we should always put accuracy over finality,” Turner said. “When there’s substantial evidence that undermines confidence in the verdict, then it deserves a new trial … evidence wasn’t turned over to the defense? It deserves a new trial so that we can get it right. We do not want to have innocent people sitting around in prison. There’s too many of them as it is. Too many.”

Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg has said her office stands by Pitonyak’s conviction, but has agreed to allow additional DNA testing regarding the case. 

Tim Copeland, Hall’s attorney, could not be reached for comment. 

The case of the 2005 murder of a UT student could find its way back into court because of previously witheld evidence.

Defense attorney Joseph Turner, who represented Colton Pitonyak, said Tuesday that the Fifth Circuit Court granted his appeal after petitioning the courts on the claim that it was Laura Hall who actually committed the murder, according to KVUE.

In 2007, Pitonyak was convicted for murdering Jennifer Cave in 2005 at his West Campus apartment and then mutilating her body. Pitonyak and Hall then fled to Mexico and were apprehended while attempting to cross back into the U.S. Cave, Pitonyak and Hall were all UT students.

Pitonyak was handed a 55-year prison sentence, while Hall received 10 years for tampering with evidence. 

Turner told KVUE that Hall confessed to the murder while in prison, informing other inmates who then reported her confession to prison officials. Turner said these reports were documented in the inmates’ files and were never turned over to the defense, and his previous requests for appeal on similar grounds were denied.

Turner said he has been granted an appeal on the issue of a Brady violation, which states that prosecuting bodies cannot withhold evidence that may benefit the defendant, marking an initial step toward an appeal and new trial. 

The Fifth Circuit Court, which granted Turner’s appeal, has yet to release information regarding the hearing.

On Wednesday, a court denied the appeal of an accessory to a West Campus murder case who was previously convicted of tampering with murder evidence.

Laura Ashley Hall claimed the conviction was not valid because prosecutors did not reveal the allegations that the Austin Police Department forensics lab “had been accused of doing substandard, shoddy and incomplete DNA analysis with lax training and quality controls,” according to the court document.

In 2005, then-UT student Hall was sentenced to 5 years in jail for altering evidence in the murder of Austin resident Jennifer Cave. Prosecution claimed Hall assisted then-UT student Colton Pitonyak in the mutilation of Cave’s body and also helped him escape to Mexico. While Pitonyak received a 55-year sentence for murder, Hall appealed during the hearing, according to the Aug. 24 court appeals document. Hall’s case went back to court in 2009 before a new jury, where she was sentenced to 10 years in prison for the same crime based on previously unpresented evidence.

The appeals court cleared the crime lab of all allegations and stated Hall’s appeal would more likely be hurt than supported by allegations of false lab results, since original results came back clear of Hall’s DNA.

Hall’s representative, attorney Joe James Sawyer, could not be reached for comment.