Jennifer Cave

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.

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.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals rejected the latest appeal of a former UT student convicted of tampering with evidence in the 2005 murder and mutilation of Austin resident Jennifer Cave.

The Court refused to accept Laura Ashley Hall’s latest appeal to her 10-year sentence for the crime. The court issued the rejection of the appeal without comment on Jan. 11. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has the discretion to grant or refuse a review based on certain criteria laid out in the Texas Rules of Appellate Procedure, said deputy clerk Mark Adams.

“Hall has 15 days [until Jan. 26] to file a motion for rehearing,” Adams said.

As of Tuesday, Hall’s attorney, Tim Copeland, had not filed such a motion Adams said. Copeland was not available to comment on Hall’s future plans.

Copeland filed Hall’s first appeal to her conviction and punishment in the Third Court of Appeals in Texas on Nov. 1, 2007. Hall was originally convicted in 2007 of the misdemeanor offense of hindering apprehension of a suspect by helping Colton Pitonyak flee to Mexico. Pitonyak was later convicted of murder and sentenced to a 55-year prison term. Hall was also convicted at the time of the felony offense of tampering with physical evidence, by dismembering Cave’s body, and was sentenced a five-year prison term.

In 2009, at the second trial for Hall’s punishment, the jury raised Hall’s sentence from a five-year term to a 10-year term, Justice Bob Pemberton said in an Aug. 24, 2011 court opinion. Pemberton issued an opinion on May 1, 2009, which stated that the Third Court of Appeals had overruled Hall’s challenge to her conviction. However, Pemberton also wrote that Hall’s points were sustained “to the extent they challenge[d] her punishment.”

“During the punishment trial on remand, the jury considered voluminous testimony and numerous exhibits from 26 witnesses for the state and four witnesses for Hall,” Pemberton wrote. “Following its deliberations, the jury returned a verdict of 10 years’ imprisonment and a fine of $10,000 for the tampering offense.”

In August of 2011, the Third Court of Appeal overruled Hall’s motion for a new trial. Pemberton said Hall’s motion was based on an allegation that the Austin Police Department Forensics lab had done substandard or shoddy work while analyzing evidence. She based this claim off of a complaint by Cecily Hamilton, a former APD employee, that the forensics lab had done incomplete DNA analysis in numerous cases since 2005, Pemberton said.

Bill Gibbins, spokesman for APD and the forensics lab said Hamilton’s claims have since been overturned.

“The chief of police requested that the Texas Rangers look into Ms. Hamilton’s allegations,” said Gibbins, “An investigation was conducted by the Texas Rangers that resulted in the lab being cleared of the allegations.”

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.