The News of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals’ Grant of Certificate of Appealability
About a week ago, I heard an exuberant scream coming from our home office late in the evening. As the wife of a passionate, half-Italian criminal defense attorney, I’ve heard this sound before. However, when I entered the room to inquire further, I quickly surmised from his face that the news he received was far greater and more meaningful than I first assumed.
The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals had granted Colton Pitonyak and his attorneys the opportunity to appeal the issue of a Brady Violation. Chris read to me the words from the Court that stated “the impact of the Brady Violation is perplexing and the claim deserves further review.”
After years of Chris working vigorously to get the Courts to recognize the need to explore the details of the Pitonyak case further, I knew how much this meant to him. To Chris, his legal assignments are not just a way to pay the bills, but a way to be a part of how we as humans decide to navigate the muddy trenches between right and wrong. And when Chris smells the possibility of infringement on freedom and justice, especially when it leads to someone spending a 55-year prison sentence behind bars for murder, potentially wrongfully so, like with Colton Pitonyak, he will not stop fighting for what he believes in.
What Does This Mean?
After getting past the emotional impact this had for Chris and Joe Turner, the other attorney involved in the Pitonyak writ, I wanted to further understand what the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals’ grant really means. As a social worker by training, I take a lot of interest in the human stories told throughout the criminal justice system, as this system is partly a reflection of our society’s values.
I learned that firstly, one must understand that a Brady Violation occurs when the prosecution’s failure to disclose evidence to the defense deprives the defendant of a fair trial.
Overturn of Prior Federal Denial
I also learned that prior to applying for the right to be heard at the 5th Circuit Federal level, Chris first had to exhaust all claims at the state court level. The state courts denied Chris’ request and stated that “the admission [of Hall’s 2005 confession] would have no reasonable impact on the trial”. Chris then filed his writ in the federal district court, but they denied him as well. That didn’t stop Chris from persevering forward to the 5th Circuit Federal level, where Chris argued that the “federal court was woefully misguided” about the law. The federal district court had denied Pitonyak the right to appeal the case to the 5th Circuit, so Chris first had to get the 5th Circuit’s permission to hear the appeal. After hearing Chris’ motion, the 5th Circuit agreed that reasonable jurists could debate whether Pitonyak had demonstrated a Brady violation, which means that Chris overturned the federal court’s initial denial of his right to appeal the case.
Possibility of New Trial
What this all comes down to is that Chris’ request convinced judges at the 5th Circuit Court level to allow Chris to argue on Pitonyak’s behalf for a new trial that would include the previously withheld evidence of Laura Hall’s confession. The Evidence Withheld from Pitonyak Background Mystery and sensation surround this case, which has amounted to several TV documentaries and national interviews trying to tease apart an understanding of what really happened.
What we do know for sure is that in August of 2005, Jennifer Cave was found shot to death and chopped up into pieces, and left in the bathroom and in trash bags of Pitonyak’s apartment. After the incident, Pitonyak and Laura Hall fled to Mexico, where they were arrested by Los Federales and returned to U.S. Custody.
Although Pitonyak received a conviction for murder and Hall received only a ten year sentence and conviction for tampering with evidence and hindering apprehension, there has always been a major question of who really murdered Jennifer Cave. Pitonyak reports that on this night he was under the influence of xanax and alcohol to such an extent that he formed no memory of what happened. In Texas, voluntary intoxication is not a defense to a crime, but it can leave a lot unknown. The prosecution struggled to come up with a motive for why Pitonyak would want Cave dead, but what is known is that Pitonyak had a romantic relationship with both Cave and Hall.
The New Evidence In 2009, when Joe and Chris began working on Pitonyak’s appeal, they came across a record from Hall’s jail stay that indicated two other inmates informed a counselor that Hall was “acting crazy” and had confessed to killing Cave. Since then, these two women have provided sworn statements that this was in fact true. Others have come forward as well to say that Hall confessed to being the killer.
What Chris and Joe are trying to argue is that if this information had not been withheld from the defense team, then it could have been used at trial, giving the jury a lot more to chew on when deciding Pitonyak’s innocence or guilt.
Why This Matters
Whenever I hear this story, my heart goes out to the deceased victim and her family. I cannot imagine what this process has been like for the victim’s family, and how for them more than anyone, getting to the bottom of this matters most for closure and their grief process. The fact that Jennifer Cave died so gruesomely and prematurely will never be okay.
This also has an impact on all of us. We live in a country that says we each have the right to a fair trial and to be seen as innocent until proven guilty, beyond a reasonable doubt. If evidence this substantial was withheld from the criminal defense team, then there is an issue of personal liberty at hand. Pitonyak was not allowed the fair fight we have all been guaranteed.
Hearing this story and this new evidence doesn’t answer all the questions for me about the truth of Jennifer Cave’s devastating death. It doesn’t mean Pitonyak is innocent. Yet, it does mean we should all want to know more and take a closer look. Not just to find the truth in this case, but also to uphold the highest standard of fairness in our criminal justice system.
My hope, and I believe the goal of the system, is that if both sides – prosecution and defense – fight fairly but zealously, then the truth will ultimately be unveiled. That didn’t happen in this case, so we are left in the dark about why a young man is serving a 55-year sentence for a crime we can’t honestly say he committed.
I’m thankful that there are attorneys like Chris and Joe Turner willing to turn over every stone to make sure their clients’ rights are protected and the prosecution is held accountable. In the end, we all want justice to be served, but not at the price of the truth.
Chris and Joe have now been given permission to file a comprehensive brief to be turned in next month. If the 5th Circuit finds that the Brady evidence undermines confidence in the jury’s verdict, then a new trial in Austin will be ordered for Pitonyak.