Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Finger Pointing 101

by Kathryn Casey

Some cases linger. Even after trials are long over, they make headlines. It seems that victims and their families will never gain closure.

At times, the twists and turns can be shocking. Even those things we thought were agreed upon are challenged. Consider this situation: A defendant testifies at his trial that he's sure he pulled the trigger. Yup, no one else was in the apartment at the time. Nope, his kind-of-a-girlfriend hadn't been with him and the victim at all that night. She couldn't have done it. Well, my thought is that it's pretty hard to later claim that the girlfriend was in fact the murderer, don't you think?

Yet, that's apparently what's happening in Austin's Colton Pitonyak case, the subject of my true crime book, A Descent Into Hell.

In a nutshell, here's the case: Pitonyak (photo below right) was a privileged kid out of Little Rock who grew up in big houses and went to private schools. He was also brilliant, a national merit scholar finalist with a $150,000 scholarship to the University of Texas's esteemed McComb's School of Business. When he graduated from high school, his teachers predicted Pitonyak would return to Arkansas as a young Donald Trump. Instead, just two short years later, the honor student was flunking and modeling himself more after Tony Soprano.

Enter his would-be girlfriend: While at UT, Pitonyak hooked up with Laura Hall, (photo below left), a bright but troubled young woman who idolized his bad-boy image. She would become Pitonyak's partner in the grisly crime that lay ahead.

The victim in this case was Jennifer Cave (photo above). Like Pitonyak and Hall, Cave was highly intelligent. With long red hair and freckles, she had a keen sense of humor and, friends and family say, a good heart. Yet she, too, lived on the edge, struggling with a drug addiction that she complained felt as if it stalked her. Ironically, the night she died, Jennifer had just worked her first day at an exciting new job and appeared serious about shaking her demons and starting over.

This is, without a doubt, the most disturbing case I've ever covered, forcing me to confront the frightening world of kids, drugs, guns, and violence. Three bright, college-age kids with everything ahead delved into Austin's drug culture and ended up throwing their lives away. In the end, Pitonyak was convicted of murder, and Hall was sentenced to five years for helping him dismember Cave's body, like the gangsters they emulated. After they cut up Jennifer's body in Pitonyak's apartment bathtub, Hall took him on a joyride to Mexico in her green Caddy, cavalierly telling a friend, "That's just how I roll."

So, here's the current situation: As I mentioned above, at the trial, Pitonyak testified that he felt sure he fired the fatal shot. He said that although he remembered little of that night, high on drugs and booze, he had to have, since no one but he and Jennifer Cave were in his apartment that night. His explanation: He hadn't meant to kill Jennifer; it had to have been an accident, but he accepted responsibility.

Now, however, it appears that Pitonyak has changed his mind. Last week, with his chances for a new trial drying up, Pitonyak's attorney filed a new appeal, arguing that Laura Hall is the killer.

That's a switch, isn't it?

What do they have to backup their claims? Pitonyak's attorneys are arguing that two friends who testified Hall was miles away the night the murder took place are mistaken. If so, Hall doesn't have a solid alibi for that night. And they have something else: the accounts of two inmates of the Travis County jail, who reportedly say Laura Hall confessed to Cave's murder during a jailhouse therapy group.

How's this going to end? The unexpected does happen, but I think it's a hard sell. After all, in the courtroom Pitonyak looked the jurors in the eyes and testified that Hall wasn't in his apartment on the night Jennifer died. While I don't fault Pitonyak's attorneys for filing the appeal -- their job after all is to do all they can to get him a new trial -- this is yet another example of how victims and their families suffer not just through the horrific initial loss and the subsequent painful trial, but often for years after, while cases are being appealed. As for Jennifer's family, they insist that they have no doubt that Pitonyak is the murderer.

Photos from the Austin American Statesman


Mary O'Grady said...

This is such a sickening case. As a Texan, I see it as an indictment of Texas's rotten criminal justice system, too. If this young man (or this little creep, as I normally think of him) were brown-skinned or poor, how fast would an ambitious prosecutor leapt for the death penalty?
The Austin papers say that Laura Hall is out of jail pending her appeal. After what she did, I think she should be under the jail, permanently.

Anonymous said...

I hope he doesn't get a new trial and stays in jail.

Anonymous said...

What is with the legal system? They are no way in heck inocent so why another trial? They both need to rot in prison never seeing the light of day or draw a free breath ever again.


Kathryn Casey said...

Just to bring everyone up to date: Pitonyak's appeal was denied.

Anonymous said...

Appeal denied is lucky for many people! Only other prisoners will need be concerned. My heart goes out to the friends & familys.