Federal violation may result in retrial for Colton Pitonyak

Alberto Long

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