A Descent Into Hell: The True Story of an Altar Boy, a Cheerleader, and a Twisted Texas Murder - Kathryn Casey (2009)
Throughout the week, the UT dorm rooms, classrooms, and Internet sites filled with discussion and commentary on the events taking place inside the Pitonyak courtroom. Students across campus watched the testimony on CourtTV, and then argued about the case. They posted on Hornfans: “The defense is trying to pin as much on Hall as they can,” one wrote. “Someone shot into the severed head? Cocaine’s one helluva drug,” another commented.
On Friday morning, the fourth day of testimony, Lauren and Hailey sat beside their parents. For Lauren, it would be the first time she’d feel as if it were all real, that Jennifer was dead and she wasn’t coming home. Up until then, she’d willed herself not to think about what had happened in unit 88, or how it had changed all their lives. In Oklahoma, she’d told few of her classmates about the case, and before she arrived, Lauren dreaded making the trip for the trial. Yet in the courtroom, the youngest Cave sister realized she didn’t want the trial to end. It was all she had left of Jennifer to hold on to. Off and on, as she listened to testimony, she thought back to her last conversation with Jennifer, remembering how before hanging up they both said, “I love you.”
As Lauren considered the loss of her sister, Hailey looked across at Bridget and Eddie and wondered what they were thinking. What would it be like to have a son who’d committed such a horrific crime? The Pitonyaks sat alone, just the two of them, appearing to have the weight of the world on their shoulders, and Hailey found herself feeling sorry for them. That sympathy brought on yet another wave of guilt. For more than a year, she’d battled regret that she hadn’t stayed closer to Jennifer, and now it felt disloyal to have any sympathy for the parents of her killer.
Outside the sun shone in a bright blue, nearly cloudless sky, while inside the courtroom, Colton, in a brown suit, a blue shirt, and a precisely knotted tie, sat placidly beside his lawyers. By five minutes to nine, every seat in the courtroom filled. At the bench, Judge Flowers talked in a low tone to Bishop, Minton, and Bassett. Something had happened the evening before, after they’d left the courtroom, and they were discussing how best to handle it. When Judge Flowers was ready, Bassett stood and called his first witness, an odd choice it would seem: the lead investigator on the case.
On the witness stand for the second time, Detective Mark Gilchrest explained that he’d discovered something inside Jennifer’s small, orange, barrel-shaped purse after testifying the day before.
“And what is it?”
Using the projector, Bassett displayed a tattered card for the “Thong Club,” a discount card from a lingerie store. What Gilchrest hadn’t noticed at first was writing on the back. In pencil, someone had written Laura Hall’s name. Why this could be important, no one explained. The two young women were both friends of Pitonyak’s, so it didn’t seem particularly odd. Seated behind the prosecutors’ table, Bill Bishop wasn’t concerned; instead he decided to take advantage of having Gilchrest back on the stand. “When you went back to apartment eighty-eight with Detective Walker did you look for a third bullet?” Bishop asked.
“Yes, we did…because there were [two bullets recovered but] three shell casings found in the apartment,” Gilchrest said.
“Did you ever find the third bullet?”
That there were three bullets was important to Bishop, something he wanted the jurors to remember. Yet he moved quickly on, hoping not to give it so much attention that he alerted Minton and Bassett. Instead, Bishop changed the subject, asking Gilchrest a question that explained Hall’s absence from the courtroom. “Is Laura Hall charged with an offense arising out of this set of circumstances?” Bishop asked.
“Yes,” Gilchrest said, looking at the jurors. “Hindering apprehension.”
Laura’s friend, Ryan Martindill, was on the prosecutors’ witness list, but since the defense admitted Pitonyak fired the fatal bullet, Bishop and McFarland hadn’t called him to testify. There were, however, points the defense attorneys thought Martindill could make for them, and he was their second witness to take the stand.
“You told me this morning that it was obvious to you that Laura was in love with Colton, and you said, ‘I sometimes can’t differentiate between love and obsession,’” Bassett said. “Is that correct?”
“Yes,” Martindill testified. Bassett wanted to put into evidence more proof of that obsession: Martindill’s account of the night Hall had “Colton” tattooed onto her ankle. Charging it was irrelevant, Bishop protested. After argument from both sides, Judge Flowers ruled in favor of the prosecutor.
In Austin, Roy Minton had a long and illustrious reputation. “One of the best,” says a lawyer he’d sparred with over the years. “A gentleman and a great attorney.”
Stephanie McFarland and Bill Bishop knew enough about their elder opposing counsel to understand that when Minton called Edward Hueske, a gray-haired gun expert from Denton, Texas, to the stand, that the attorney would put on a display of ballistic expertise. Two days earlier, Minton had grilled the prosecutor’s gun expert until the man finally agreed with him that a bullet could be in the chamber of the Smith and Wesson .380 after the magazine was pulled out, and that could lead to accidentally firing the gun. With his own expert, the defense attorney wouldn’t have to push as hard to get the same result.
In front of the jury, Hueske and Minton displayed the weapon, pulling out the gun’s narrow black magazine, and explaining that the gun could be thought empty, although a bullet remained lodged in the barrel.
“Where is the safety on this gun?” Minton asked.
“There’s no safety,” Hueske said.
The gun, a type that police officers often carried a decade earlier, he explained, “was suitable for rapid fire in a tactical situation.” Hueske labeled the .380 a cheap and poorly designed gun. Minton instructed him to demonstrate how the gun was loaded and emptied. Although the magazine was removed, the gun could still be dangerous.
“It will fire,” said Hueske. The prosecutors’ expert judged the pressure necessary to pull the gun’s trigger as 8.5 to 11.5 pounds. Hueske placed the number lower, between 6.5 and 7 pounds. Then McFarland stood up, and the defense attorney’s gains were tempered.
“[The gun’s trigger pressure is] within normal range?” she asked on cross-exam.
“Yes,” Hueske said.
“Certainly it’s not a hair-trigger?”
“No,” he agreed.
“State your name for the jury,” Minton instructed his fourth witness.
“Colton Aaron Pitonyak,” the defendant said to an overflowing courtroom.
“How old are you?”
“Twenty-four,” he said.
On the witness stand, Pitonyak showed no more emotion than he had sitting at the defense table the preceding three days. His voice was hoarse, his face blotched with even more blemishes than at the beginning of the trial, and he reached often for the water glass beside him. Minton would later blame his client’s flat affect and thirst on an antidepressant prescribed by jail doctors. Watching the testimony, the DA’s investigator, Jim Bergman, scoffed. “That kid wasn’t drinking water like that until he got on the witness stand,” he whispered. “Medicine my eye. He’s drinking to give himself time to think before answering. You’ve gotta do that, if you’re going to lie.”
“Is that your momma and daddy?” Minton asked, pointing at the Pitonyaks.
“Yes, sir,” Colton politely answered.
Minton took Pitonyak on a journey that must have been painful for his parents to relive, one that began when he was a straight-A honor student, and ended when he became a drug addict and a dealer. He talked about his drunk-driving charge and his time in jail for possession, the sentence he’d finished serving only six weeks before he shot and killed Jennifer Cave.
“Did you realize you had a drinking problem?” Minton asked.
“Yes, sir,” Pitonyak answered.
Yet when his parents sent him to La Hacienda for an expensive round of rehab, Pitonyak admitted he hadn’t gone there to reap the benefits. “I just told the counselors what they wanted to hear.”
Minton called Pitonyak’s behavior insincere, and his client didn’t disagree with him. “I was ashamed,” he said. “…I didn’t have a desire to quit in the first place.”
Colton Pitonyak recounted how he met Jennifer Cave in early spring 2004. “After a while we got to be really good friends,” he said.
“Did you ever, either one of you, fall in love with the other?” Minton asked.
Despite his protestations on the night in Justin’s apartment, when he’d pleaded with Jennifer to be with him, saying over and over again that he loved her, Colton Pitonyak answered, “No, it wasn’t like that. She was my best friend.”
If he had loved her, and she didn’t return his affection, of course, that could be motive, so Pitonyak had a reason to lie. And the prosecutors still didn’t know what Pitonyak’s true feelings had been for his victim, so they weren’t able to call him on his deceit. Throughout his testimony, Colton repeated each time he was asked, “She was my friend.”
“When did you start sleeping with Laura Hall?” Minton asked.
“I think it was late spring 2005,” he said.
“Did you realize the girl was in love with you?”
“Yes, sir,” he said, then admitting that he’d “taken advantage” of the situation to have sex with her at least once a week. He denied owning a gun, saying the .380 was left at his apartment as collateral from someone who owed him money.
“Why did they owe you money?” Minton asked.
“For drugs,” he responded, staring blandly at the audience. He sold drugs, he admitted, but classified it as “a little bit…to pay for my party habits.”
Even on the witness stand, Pitonyak couldn’t help but appear the campus thug, bragging about how he bought drugs for other college students who were “scared of a lot of people” who sold them. Drugs were a lucrative business, he said, yet he didn’t have enough money to get his car back after it had been towed. “I think my mother helped me with that.”
It was Jennifer’s idea to go out that night, he said, but he didn’t remember where they went or what they did after they left Jazz, the Cajun restaurant where Colton couldn’t remember, but assumed he drank a “Bermuda Triangle,” a rum punch concoction so potent the restaurant limited two to a customer. “I know we didn’t eat much,” he said. “I was taking a bunch of pills that day, too…Xanax.”
What he didn’t mention were the methamphetamines Jason Mack said his good friend Colton abused continually in the months leading up to the killing. Of course, his own attorneys had already mentioned before the jury that meth could make users aggressive.
In his folksy, grandfatherly manner, Roy Minton put both hands on his narrow hips. “Tell me this, why when you were drinking perfectly good whisky, do you take Xanax?”
“You don’t have to drink as much to get messed up as quick,” his client responded.
After the restaurant, Colton Pitonyak insisted the next thing he remembered was waking up the next morning. When did he realize Jennifer was in the bathtub, dead? “I’m not sure. Everything kind of blurred together,” he answered. He believed he saw her when he used the bathroom. He admitted shooting the fatal bullet, saying he must have because no one else was in the apartment that night.
“Did you know this child is dead?” Minton asked, his voice rising like a parent scolding a misbehaving teenager.
“I knew…I got scared and panicked,” he said, when asked why he didn’t call 911.
From that point on, Colton blamed everything that happened on Laura Hall. It was her idea to dismember the body. In fact, she must have done the work, for he certainly couldn’t have. He didn’t have the stomach for it. “I wouldn’t have done that,” he said.
“Why cut up the body?” Minton asked. While his client admitted he’d shot the fatal bullet, the defense attorney was attempting to separate Pitonyak from the horrific aftermath. Colton admitted that he and Hall discussed cutting up Jennifer’s body and that he wanted to “get rid of it,” but again he insisted he wasn’t the one who wielded the machete and hacksaw.
“…I didn’t cut on the body…” He tried to, he said, “…I couldn’t.”
Why had he gone to Breed’s Hardware with the list? “[Laura] said something wasn’t working and that she needed some things,” he said.
“Who killed [Jennifer]?” Minton asked.
“I did,” Pitonyak said, although again he stressed that he didn’t remember anything that happened. Why then did he believe he’d fired the bullet? “Everything points to it.” As to why he would have done such a horrendous thing, he didn’t have an answer, beyond that he wouldn’t and couldn’t have done it on purpose.
The escape to Mexico in the green Cadillac, Pitonyak said, was also Laura Hall’s doing. He thought they were going to Houston, simply to flee the apartment with the body in the bathtub and give himself time to think.
Once again with a grandfatherly scowl, Minton asked, “Did you ever realize the grief you were causing?”
Remarkably, Pitonyak answered, “I know now.”
Apparently, it had taken Pitonyak’s arrest, more than a year in jail, and a trial before he understood the vast harm he’d done.
Minton railed at his client, accusing him of having to have known what Hall wanted the masks, gloves, hacksaw, and ammonia for. Yes, Pitonyak admitted. He knew. “Didn’t your momma and daddy tell you, if you’re ever in trouble, call me first?” Minton asked, as if talking to a child.
“Too many times,” Pitonyak answered. Again and again, the defense attorney and his client talked about the booze and the pills, and Colton insisted he remembered nothing of the horror of either the killing or the mutilation of Jennifer’s body.
“Did you fire the shot into Jennifer’s severed head?”
“No, I did not,” Colton insisted.
“Then who did?” Minton asked.
“I can only assume,” Pitonyak said.
“Who else was around the body?”
Pitonyak looked at the jury. “Laura Hall,” he said.
“Did you knowingly cause the death of Jennifer Cave?” Minton asked.
“No I did not,” Pitonyak answered.
The judge called a morning break, and everyone filed out of the courtroom. Sharon left crying. The last question Minton had asked before he’d passed the witness was who had written “J. Ribbit” with Jennifer’s cell phone number on his wall. Jennifer wrote it, Colton said. “Ribbit, like a frog,” he added.
Frog, of course, was Jennifer’s family nickname. “Colton Pitonyak had even stolen that from me,” Sharon says. “Something that was between us would now be linked to him and to her murder.”
As he left the courtroom to get lunch, Bishop considered the morning’s testimony. He knew Pitonyak’s flat affect probably wasn’t playing well for the jury. They wanted to see the young man show remorse. “That kid didn’t even look flustered,” says Bishop. Yet he worried about the cross-examination. Most murder defendants don’t testify, so it’s unusual for a prosecutor to get to question one on the witness stand. And that Pitonyak said he didn’t remember could be tricky. Says Bishop: “It’s hard to trip someone up if that’s all they’re going to tell you.”
“You testified this morning, basically, that you were a victim of an addiction to drugs and alcohol,” Bishop said to Pitonyak. “Is that fair to say?”
At first, Pitonyak hesitated, appearing to think over his response, “Yes, sir.”
“Didn’t you cultivate a gangster persona?” Bishop asked, his eyes boring into Pitonyak.
“No,” Pitonyak said.
Scoffing, Bishop laid out the Internet evidence, first Colton’s ILoveMoneyAndHos screen name.
“That was a joke,” Pitonyak said, his voice strained.
In the kitchen, Colton hung one poster: “Make way for the bad guy,” written under Al Pacino as Scarface. When Bishop asked Pitonyak to read quotes off his Facebook.com profile from Al Capone and John Gotti, Colton did as instructed, but then, without being asked, read one more, a Warren Buffett quote: “I always knew I was going to be rich…”
“You didn’t just use drugs, you sold them, a lot,” Bishop said.
Pitonyak agreed that was how he’d made money, while Bishop put up on the screen images APD experts had pulled off the young man’s computer, photographs of Xanax and ecstasy tablets, Pitonyak’s drug catalog. His sign-on name on the Web site was C-Money.
“Is it fair to say that’s the image you were trying to portray yourself, as a gangster?” Bishop asked.
“No, I wasn’t,” Pitonyak protested, but when Bishop asked for the names of Colton’s drug contacts, his suppliers, the scene played out like a bad TV cop show. “I don’t have specific names,” Pitonyak said. Under questioning, Pitonyak admitted he carried a gun at times, and when Bishop asked who Pitonyak owed money to, again, the young man’s answers were evasive, saying simply, “Some guys.”
On the witness stand, even the meticulously pressed suit he wore couldn’t camouflage what he’d become; Colton Pitonyak acted like a criminal. Bishop rattled off a summary of Pitonyak’s life at the time of the killing: Colton owed his drug suppliers money, he’d gotten a D in his summer school class, his car had been towed, and he was on the Internet in the middle of the night looking for a silencer and an assault weapon.
When it came to the night of Jennifer’s death, nearly every question Bishop asked was answered by Pitonyak, “I don’t know,” or “I don’t recall.”
Again, Bishop trailed back to Colton’s Facebook profile, first going through the list of gangster rappers Pitonyak idolized, and then reading off the movies he’d listed as his favorites. In Goodfellas, “that movie has a pretty graphic scene of a dismemberment of a human body, doesn’t it?” Bishop asked.
“I don’t recall specifically, but…”
“You don’t recall in Goodfellas where a combination of a large butcher knife and a machete were used to dismember a body?” Bishop asked, his voice incredulous.
“I don’t recall. It has been a while since I have seen that movie,” Pitonyak said.
There were dismemberments in the other movies as well, including in Donnie Brasco, where “they used a hatchet or a machete and a saw,” Bishop said.
“I don’t remember specifically, but, yes,” Pitonyak admitted.
Then Bishop asked about the Netflix folder police found on Pitonyak’s coffee table. The Sopranos DVD inside included an episode where a body was taken to a bathtub and the head and hands cut off, eerily similar to the condition of Jennifer’s body. “I don’t recall that specific scene,” Pitonyak said.
“How many times between four-twenty-eight that morning when you were on Sherdog.com and three-eighteen that afternoon when you checked out at Breed’s did you go to the bathroom?” Bishop asked. How could Pitonyak say he didn’t participate in or even know about the dismemberment when he’d spent the day inside the apartment? There was only one bathroom.
“Quite a few times, I assume,” Pitonyak said.
“So it’s not really accurate to say you didn’t know what Laura Hall was doing?”
“No,” Pitonyak admitted. “I knew what was going on.”
“In fact, you were either doing it yourself or assisting her in the process…”
“By letting it go on…but I didn’t assist…”
“You don’t think using the machete on a deceased body is taking part?” Bishop asked.
“I didn’t use the machete,” Pitonyak said.
It was habit, he said, that made him order his value meal at Burger King that afternoon without onions, not evidence that he wasn’t in the drugged fog he’d testified to. When he’d talked to Scott Engle and said, “That bitch is going to get me arrested,” Bishop asked if Pitonyak was talking about his good friend Jennifer Cave, who was in pieces in his bathroom?
“I don’t specifically remember,” Pitonyak said for what seemed like the hundredth time that day.
In the gallery, Sharon, Lauren, Vanessa, and Hailey sobbed. Disgusted by Pitonyak’s performance on the witness stand, Vanessa ran from the courtroom, unable to listen anymore, and a moment later, Lauren, Hailey, and Sharon followed.
On the screen, Bishop projected a photograph of Jennifer’s severed head, the side of her face covered with gaping cuts. “How did that happen?” he asked, furious.
“I don’t know,” Pitonyak said.
The prosecutor displayed the photo of the cuts on her chest, and asked the same question. Again, Pitonyak answered, “I don’t know.”
“Who put her hands in the bag?” Bishop demanded.
“I don’t know,” Pitonyak said.
“Who put her head in the bag?”
“I don’t know.”
“How long did it take to cut her head off?” Bishop asked.
“I don’t know,” Pitonyak replied.
Bishop asked if Pitonyak purchased the hacksaw because the machete wasn’t working, and he again insisted that he wasn’t the one wielding the weapon.
“But your DNA is on the grip,” Bishop pointed out.
“I didn’t use the machete,” Pitonyak answered, kneading his hands and appearing nervous. “I admit it was my machete, but I didn’t use it.”
Bill Bishop eyed Colton Pitonyak with total disgust. “I have no further questions, your honor,” the prosecutor said.
On redirect, Roy Minton attempted to repair the damage. “The last number of questions that Mr. Bishop asked you were about who had done those things to Jennifer’s body. It was either you or it was Laura. Is there any question about that?”
“No there is no question,” Pitonyak said. He looked angry, but controlled. “I know I didn’t do those things.”
Then, Minton asked his client, a young man who contended he was so drugged and drunk that he couldn’t remember shooting and killing Jennifer Cave, dragging her body to the bathtub, or the bloody result, “Is it clear in your mind that it was Laura?”
“I can’t think of any other options,” Pitonyak said.
As if it were a deep confession, something he was ashamed of, Pitonyak admitted he’d lied to the hardware store owner about the purpose of the hacksaw. Colton, Minton said, had to realize that since he bought the tools, he was as guilty as “if you’d been capable of doing it?”
“Yes, sir,” Pitonyak said.
In his self-description, Colton Pitonyak was a young man who wasn’t able to do such a ghastly act. He was too weak-stomached. Then, Minton, again, portrayed his client as little more than a youngster, asking about the paintball guns found in his apartment. What had Colton done with them? He’d horsed around like a college kid.
“My friends and I used to have little…play games of war with them,” Pitonyak said, smiling.
“Here in Austin?” Minton asked.
With that, at 2:30 that Friday afternoon, Colton Pitonyak left the witness stand, while in the background his mother could be heard crying.
A key defense witness wasn’t available until Monday, so testimony was about to wrap up for the week, when Sam Bassett called a last witness. Javier Rosales walked into the room. A construction worker, he’d been brought in directly from his job, wearing jeans and a bright yellow T-shirt with a tropical cocktail on the back. Prosecutors had just heard about Rosales the day before, and Detective Fugitt tracked him down and took his statement the previous night. Rosales had worked as a waiter at Baby Acapulco, the same loud, brightly painted Mexican restaurant where Laura Hall waitressed for a period after the killing. As usual, it would soon become evident that Hall hadn’t been averse to talking about the killing.
“As soon as we listened to what Rosales would say, we knew we wanted the jury to hear it,” says Sam Bassett.
“What did Laura Hall tell you?” Bassett asked.
“That she masterminded the escape, and would have gotten away if she hadn’t called her father,” the heavyset man said. But then, Rosales said Hall had told him something else, something that didn’t jibe with what Colton Pitonyak had just said on the witness stand, something that didn’t bolster the defense: “that she helped cut up a human body.”
As the jury and spectators left the courtroom, McFarland thought that it had been a good day for the prosecution. Pitonyak hadn’t been believable on the witness stand, she judged. His story had too many holes, too many conveniently remembered memories versus his insistence that he remembered nothing of such grisly scenes as the cutting up of Jennifer’s body. As for Javier, he’d only reinforced the prosecutors’ views: that Colton Pitonyak was the one who’d done the major work dismembering the body. McFarland had one more thought: She hoped Laura Hall was watching the trial. She wondered how Hall felt hearing that Pitonyak laid the blame for the dismemberment entirely on her shoulders.
“Pitonyak was on the stand burying Hall, to save his own hide,” Bergman concurred. “He’d used Laura Hall for sex, and he was using her again.”
Much of the courtroom cleared out, with the exception of a few reporters and the two families, as Judge Flowers took up with the attorneys the most important legal argument of the trial: the defense attorneys’ request to give the jury the option of lesser charges against Pitonyak, specifically the additions of manslaughter and negligent homicide.
“Do you have an opinion on that?” Flowers asked the prosecutors.
“My position is that they haven’t raised evidence in such a manner as to deserve any consideration,” Bishop responded. Colton Pitonyak hadn’t gotten on the stand and testified to either shooting Jennifer as she attacked him, in self-defense, or holding the gun and having it accidentally discharge and kill her. Saying he wouldn’t have done it on purpose, Bishop argued, wasn’t enough.
“I want to know why you think you’re entitled to it,” Flowers asked Minton.
“We believe the evidence raised issues and we’re entitled to it,” Minton said. He went through the points they’d raised during the trial, including that Pitonyak said he didn’t know the gun was loaded, that the defense expert testified it could easily misfire, and that Pitonyak insisted he and Jennifer were friends and he wouldn’t have killed her on purpose.
The gun was so bad, Minton said, that it was more than likely that the shooting had been an accident. “I’m ashamed Smith and Wesson put it out,” he added, his voice rising emotionally in the courtroom.
The evidence to support a lesser charge wasn’t there, Bishop responded. “The possibility of an accidental discharge doesn’t raise the evidence, or it would in every court and every murder.”
With the fervor of a preacher pounding home the message of the week’s gospel, Roy Minton repeated Colton Pitonyak’s version of the events that led up to the murder. The gun had been in the house for only forty-eight hours. He didn’t know it was loaded. There was no evidence that showed any altercation, nothing to suggest there’d been a struggle. And the prosecutors had no motive. They’d shown no evidence of any prior violence or even anger between Colton and Jennifer.
Judge Flowers, looking tired, said, “I will read some cases on it.”
The weekend was a sad one. Sharon thought often of Jennifer, wondering what she’d seen in Colton, why she continued to be his friend. The trial was expected to conclude the following Monday, and they drove back to Austin and checked in at the Radisson on Sunday afternoon. That evening, Sharon and Jim had dinner with Jack and Tracey Bissett. When Sharon was in the lobby, she noticed Eddie Pitonyak walking toward her. It was obvious that he didn’t recognize her at first, and she simply crossed her arms and stood her ground. When he looked up and saw her, he turned and walked away.
At 8:30 the following morning, Judge Flowers was on the bench, and Minton and Bishop again argued that lesser offenses with shorter maximum sentences should be included in the charges against Pitonyak. Doing so would give jurors more options to choose from, increasing the chances of a lighter sentence. It was the ball game for Minton and Bassett. They needed that lesser charge to ensure that the jury, so horrified by the photos, didn’t come down hard on their client. To counter Bishop’s charge that they hadn’t presented sufficient evidence to support a lesser charge, Minton said that was coming. “[The reason] we are putting Dr. Richard Coons on is to discuss the effect of alcohol and Xanax on the brain, to explain how the memory works,” Minton told Judge Flowers.
“I don’t think it’s helpful to the jury for someone to say this is an accident due to alcohol and drug abuse,” Bishop countered.
Dr. Richard Coons, a favorite in Texas law enforcement, was an expert witness used by prosecutors and defense attorneys alike. Minton argued that Coons would explain that Pitonyak probably didn’t remember that night, by detailing the effects of drugs and alcohol. The judge considered Minton’s suggestion, then announced he’d made his decision. The only charge the jurors could consider against Colton Pitonyak was murder. Disappointed, Minton walked back to the defense table, Bassett beside him. They’d fought hard, but they’d lost.
Minton’s first witness on the stand that Monday morning was Bridget Pitonyak, there to tell the jury about the night in February 2005 when she and Eddie went out to dinner at Sullivan’s steak house with Colton and his group of friends, including Jennifer and Scott. “Anything unpleasant about that experience?” Minton asked.
“No,” Bridget said. It had been a cordial evening. Her son liked Jennifer. The implication: He wouldn’t have intentionally killed her.
On cross-examination, Bill Bishop asked Bridget to focus on August 17 and 18, 2005, the time of the killing. “Do you recall sending your son several messages?” he asked.
Bridget said she did. Colton had text-messaged that he was going to Houston. She didn’t dispute that she might have text-messaged and told him it was driving her crazy “not knowing what’s happening.”
“Did he tell you what happened in Austin?” Bishop asked.
“No,” she said.
“Did he tell you why he went to Mexico?”
Again, Colton’s mother insisted, “No.”
On the witness stand, Richard Coons was impressive, tall, solidly built, with glasses and graying hair. A forensic psychiatrist, Coons had testified in many of the most sensational cases in Texas history, including a few years earlier in the trial of Celeste Beard, a former country club waitress, for the murder of her multimillionaire husband. Not only was Coons a medical doctor, but he had a degree in law from the University of Texas, and he was more than comfortable in a courtroom.
“Have you done work for the DA’s office in Austin over the years?” Minton asked.
“For thirty-two years,” Coons said. Answering questions, Coons explained how memory works, how the brain stores it in layers that consist of immediate, short-term, and long-term in the hippocampus, the part of the brain central to memory. Then he discussed the possible effects of alcohol and Xanax on the brain. Large amounts of both combined, Coons said, “and you can’t lay down the memory.” Using the drugs over a long term and in large amounts had “an additive effect.”
Yes, Coons said, the result could be blackouts, whole periods of time that were unaccounted for when no memory existed.
“Take someone twenty-two years of age who is drinking one fifth to a quart of vodka daily and using Xanax, two, three, four, five of those pills a day. Is it inconsistent that he has forgotten an entire day or an entire night? Can it be blocked so entirely?” Minton asked.
Bill Bishop objected, saying the question had already been asked and answered, but the judge allowed Dr. Coons to answer, “It will impair the memory for all the time you are sufficiently intoxicated.”
“During that period of time, you don’t have any memory to pull back up?”
The prosecutors asked Coons no questions, and at 9:30 that Monday morning, the defense rested.
After Dr. Coons left the witness stand, Sam Bassett rose to register an objection to be officially entered in the trial transcript. “We object that the charge does not include manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide,” Bassett said, preserving the objection for appeal, as the court reporter, Rita Grasshoff, typed his words into the official record.
Judge Flowers ordered a twenty-minute break, and then closing arguments would begin.