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.