A Descent Into Hell: The True Story of an Altar Boy, a Cheerleader, and a Twisted Texas Murder - Kathryn Casey (2009)
At 9:50 that Monday morning, court reconvened. The two alternate jurors were dismissed, and Judge Flowers read the charge to the remaining twelve, the law they were to adhere to when deciding Colton Pitonyak’s fate. There were aspects that cut both ways. “Voluntary intoxication does not establish a defense to a crime,” Flowers read. “…the burden of proof rests with the state” and “if you have any reasonable doubt, thereof, you will find the defendant not guilty by your verdict.”
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Stephanie McFarland said, walking up to the jury, as she began closing arguments. On the screen Bishop projected the Burger King receipt from the day of the killing. “Colton Pitonyak didn’t like onions. Colton Pitonyak didn’t eat onions. You should believe that not because the defense told you but because it’s supported by the evidence, the undisputed evidence that this man,” she said, pointing at Pitonyak. “Shortly after buying a hacksaw to carve up his friend, he stopped at Burger King and ordered a meal, and remembered to make sure it didn’t have onions…You need to rely on the undisputed evidence in this case. The defendant’s testimony is full of inconsistencies not supported by the facts.”
Quickly McFarland zeroed in on the issues she knew the defense would emphasize, that there’d been no evidence of an argument or a struggle and that the prosecutors hadn’t proven Colton Pitonyak had any reason to kill Jennifer Cave.
“The state didn’t need to prove motive,” she maintained. “Specific intent is formed in an instant.”
During voir dire, Roy Minton discussed manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide with the jurors. “[Those options aren’t in the charge] because there’s no evidence disputing that this act was knowingly and intentionally [committed],” she said. “The law says that if you kill someone with a deadly weapon, then specific intent can be inferred. There is no evidence that this was an accident.”
McFarland stood and looked at the jurors, from one face to the next: “Their whole case is ‘I don’t remember, but I know it couldn’t have been intentional.’” Pitonyak, she said, wasn’t credible. He would lie to keep from going to prison; he was a drug addict and a dealer. “Don’t be fooled by his nice hair cut and nice suit.”
The day of the killing, Pitonyak was “losing it,” McFarland said, his lifestyle evaporating around him, a thug who owed money for drugs. After he killed Jennifer, she was stabbed in the face and the chest, a bullet shot through her severed neck into her brain, her head and hands cut off. “No decent person would do that, so he blamed Laura Hall,” she said. “He is lying, and the DNA evidence proves it.
“You can’t find someone guilty of murder for mutilating a body, but it tells you a lot about their intent toward the person,” she said. To Colton, “Jennifer was just a body, just a piece of meat…He called Jennifer’s mother, while [Jennifer’s] dead body was in his bathtub, and said, ‘Dude, don’t bother me’…He called Jennifer a bitch to Scott Engle.”
Putting the photo from Mexico on the screen, the one of Pitonyak and Hall smiling as if on a holiday, she asked, “Is he panicked, grief-stricken?…He knows he’s guilty of murder. All you have to do is tell him that you’re going to hold him accountable.”
When McFarland reclaimed her seat, Sam Bassett took over the courtroom floor. He paused and looked at the jury, thoughtful, with irritation in his voice. “You ought to be angry with Colton. You ought to be disgusted with some of his behavior after Jennifer died,” he said. “But don’t confuse the way she died with the cause of her death…Is there evidence beyond a reasonable doubt to prove that Colton killed his friend Jennifer Cave on purpose, intentionally and knowingly?” There wasn’t, he insisted.
As the prosecutors knew he would, Bassett then turned his attention to motive. “The state’s not required to prove motive,” he said. “But don’t you know that if they had any instance or evidence of Colton being mean to Jennifer, threatening Jennifer, doing anything bad to Jennifer, you would have heard about it?”
Then Bassett turned to the subject of Laura Hall, insisting she was responsible for the condition of Jennifer’s body and the run to Mexico. “In Laura’s words, ‘I masterminded the escape,’” he said, quoting Javier Rosales. Colton could have tried to blame Laura for the killing, but he didn’t. “Wouldn’t that have been more convincing if he’s a liar?”
Finally, Bassett pleaded, “[Colton’s] telling the truth: ‘I can’t remember. God I wish I could. I’m sorry my friend is dead. There is no way I could have killed her on purpose.’”
Looking weary, Roy Minton stood before the jurors. He walked to the judge’s bench, where he picked up from the ledge the SW .380 gun that was used to kill Jennifer Cave. In his calm, unaffected manner, Minton said, “Let me begin, folks, by talking to you about this gun…”
As he had during testimony, Minton called the gun unsafe, poorly designed, an accident waiting to happen. The buck knife with the Pitonyak Machinery Corporation logo on the handle, Minton called “a cheap little old knife that his father buys by the hundreds. PMC. That’s his daddy.”
Was there, Minton asked, “some speck of motive? Some idea why these two kids were mad at each other? Why he wanted to take this girl’s life?”
“Was [Colton] lying when he tells you he is drinking the way he has?…I am telling you I don’t know what happened. Colton doesn’t know what happened,” he said, his voice rising. “All of this evidence has indicated that Colton didn’t have any feelings for Jennifer. She was his buddy, his pal…the drugs were part of their relationship.”
Why? he asked, over and over, hitting hard on the absence of a motive.
Again Minton took the stance of an old man scolding unruly children. “I don’t mean to criticize the child,” he said, referring to Jennifer. “But what business do either of these kids have going out to Sixth Street when she has to be at work the next morning?”
After listing the drugs and alcohol Pitonyak said he’d ingested that fateful night, Minton returned to the main issue: “Intentionally means that he meant to kill her. Knowingly means that he knows what he’s doing when he picks up the gun and pulls the trigger…There is no way…So we have to decide how likely it is that something came up that he decided to murder Jennifer…I just don’t see it…you are dealing with a drunk, drugged up kid…he hasn’t got a brain, folks.”
When it came to the mutilation of Jennifer’s corpse, the dismemberment, the cuts to her face and chest, the bullet shot up into her skull, the disgrace of it made Minton furious. “Both of them [Colton and Laura] involved up to their eyelashes, and they’re smiling for a picture. I don’t defend that conduct at all,” he said. Yet, he urged the jurors to think of Colton’s actions and his wannabe gangster persona in the context of modern culture. “I hope some of ya’ll have got kids that buy posters and put their names on websites and call themselves Dillinger,” he said. “Oh this has been a heartbreaker, just a heartbreaker…I’m getting too old to try cases where kids get killed,” Minton moaned…“[But] I do not want to see this boy get convicted of something he’s not guilty of.”
Finally, Bill Bishop addressed the jury, as in his opening statement, with his hands clasped behind his back. “Mr. Bassett and Mr. Minton want you to ignore the fact that Jennifer Cave was mutilated. Her hands were removed. Her head was removed. Because that is something they can’t explain…” he said. “I think if we apply stories to the evidence we know, I think we can make sense of it.”
The jurors, Bishop said, needed to remember who Colton Pitonyak was in August 2005, when Jennifer died. He was abusing drugs and alcohol, portraying himself in a gangster image. He owed people money, and his good customer, Jennifer Cave, wasn’t buying drugs from him anymore. “The mutilation shows you and the flight shows you that he had a guilty conscience. He knew what he had done, he knew he shouldn’t have done it, and he was going to get out of there,” Bishop said. “They want to blame [Laura Hall] for all that happened, but the evidence doesn’t support that…Look at the DNA.” It was Colton Pitonyak’s DNA all over the bathroom and the tools. “There is a green towel with his blood. There are jeans in the washer with his blood. You don’t get injured; you don’t bleed as the result of [firing] an accidental gunshot…You get injured [and bloody] mutilating a body in a bathtub.”
If Hall, a slightly built woman, had been able to cut up Jennifer’s body without leaving DNA, “she’s an absolute genius.” Colton Pitonyak, Bishop charged, told the jurors what they wanted to hear, just as he admitted he’d done with the drug counselors at La Hacienda. “He wasn’t going to Houston. He took his passport.”
Then Bishop played what he saw as his ace in the hole, the piece of evidence he’d subtly driven home to the jurors: that there was a second bullet casing found in the living room. Why was the second casing important? During his testimony, Colton had testified that he’d never shot the gun before that night. If Colton shot at Jennifer only once, unintentionally, there would have been only one casing. But there were two.
That second cartridge was proof, Bishop said, that Colton lied. Could he have fired twice at Jennifer that night, perhaps missing the first time and firing again? “You don’t fire accidentally twice!” the prosecutor said. “…There is nothing more intentional than pointing a gun and shooting it.”
Bishop suggested the jury consider Colton Pitonyak’s actions. From the moment he showed up at Nora Sullivan’s that morning, Colton worked on setting up an alibi, laying the groundwork to explain away the gunshots. “[Colton had] seen all the movies, Donnie Brasco, Goodfellas, Sopranos,” Bishop said. “[H]e [knew] the next step: get rid of the body.”
“Unfortunately for Mr. Pitonyak, movies are movies, and life is life,” Bishop said. “And [cutting up a body] is a lot harder than he thought.”
Roy Minton had espoused a theory that had Jennifer sitting on the bed when Colton picked up the gun and it accidentally went off. Bill Bishop disagreed. He proposed that Jennifer was in the kitchen, “the one room that’s been cleaned within an inch of its life.”
“You have heard nothing, nothing in this case that leads you to believe anything but that Colton Pitonyak intentionally shot Jennifer Cave.”
The jurors left the courtroom single file to deliberate. The judge retired to his chambers shortly after noon. By nature, Stephanie McFarland could be fiery, but Bill Bishop had surprised many in the courtroom. In his closing, his voice had taken on an emotional edge they hadn’t heard before. This case had touched him.
Three friends had come to support the Pitonyaks, and they walked from the courtroom with Bridget and Eddie. From the Cave side came Sharon, Jim, Vanessa, Lauren, Hailey, and the rest of their family, including for this final day, Clayton; Whitney, who took time off from medical school to come; and her husband, Shawn. Jennifer’s grandmother, Myrtle, was there, along with Jim and Sharon’s good friend Harold Shockley, and many of Jennifer’s aunts, uncles, and cousins. While they waited, they filed downstairs to a lounge in the victims’ assistance office, anxious and apprehensive.
On the way to his office, just across the street from the courthouse, Roy Minton stewed, wondering if the jury “fully understood and appreciated that the shooting could have been an accident.” Downstairs in his office, Bill Bishop worried that he’d left something out, some crucial piece of evidence that it was now too late to present. He looked at the brief outline he’d pulled together, one that read: “Memory does not equal intent”; “Mutilation and flight not as they told you because of DNA”; and more. Everything had been covered, but he still felt restless.
“I always worry,” he says. “Always.”
In his office, Jim Bergman considered the word “motive.” It was fine to say jurors didn’t need to have a reason for murder, that the prosecutors didn’t need to prove Pitonyak had one, but he understood all too well that jurors are only human. In their hearts, he feared, they’d want an answer to the question, “Why?”
Less than an hour after deliberations began, at 1:10, word swept through the crowd congregated in the hallway: The jury had reached a verdict. Soon the families, attorneys, reporters, and observers again packed the courtroom so tight there was hardly room for a breath, when Colton Pitonyak was escorted back in by an armed deputy. The judge entered and ordered everyone in the courtroom to maintain calm when the verdict was read. “You cannot show any emotion,” he warned. Then the jury filed in.
As he waited to hear his fate, Colton looked placid, even disinterested. The bailiff brought the verdict to Judge Flowers, who read it and handed it back to be given to the jury foreman. The man rose and read: “On the charge of murder…we find Colton Pitonyak guilty.”
Showing little emotion, Colton glanced at his parents, and Bridget rested her head on her husband’s shoulder, as they both quietly wept.
Not having heard the judge’s order, Scott Engle walked in just as the verdict was read, and shouted, “Yes,” throwing his arms up in the air, upon hearing the word “guilty.” The judge pounded his gavel and ordered quiet, then asked that the jury be taken to their room. They were excused until two o’clock, when the punishment phase of the trial would begin.
Once the jury cleared the courtroom, a wave of voices filled the air, crying and cheering. Sharon threw her arms around Lauren, Vanessa, Hailey, and Clayton, as they all sobbed. Two sets of families sat across a courtroom from each other crying, the Pitonyaks out of grief to losing their son to prison, Jennifer’s family out of relief that the man who murdered her would be punished.
Sentencing was, as Sam Bassett put it, “the ball game.” The two defense attorneys had been arguing for lesser charges and a lighter sentence since the trial began. Judge Flowers vetoed the lesser charges. Now, the only hope the defense had was to persuade the jury to come in with a lighter sentence. The options were vast, from probation to life in prison. “If we got Colton twenty to thirty years, he should be cheering,” says Bassett.
While Minton would argue for a light sentence, Bishop would press the jurors for the maximum, life. Who would Bishop put on the witness stand to convince the jury they needed to come down hard on Pitonyak? At first, the prosecutor had considered putting the officers who arrested Colton on the drug charge in 2004 on the stand. They’d seen him at his worst and would be able to explain to the jury who Pitonyak was at the time of the murder. Instead, as court reconvened, Bishop asked Sharon to get ready. She would be the prosecutor’s one and only witness. Sharon alone would shoulder the responsibility of sharing the grief caused by Jennifer’s death, the suffering Colton Pitonyak caused when he raised his gun and fired.
“Jennifer was a middle child,” Sharon said, looking at the jurors, her eyes dark and sunken, and her manner quiet. When Stephanie McFarland asked her to tell of the toll on first herself and then the family, Sharon said: “I go to the doctor now. I’ve never gone to the doctor before. I’m on antidepressants now. Sleep is hard to come by…It hurts every single day.”
Sharon worried about Vanessa, who was with them the day they found Jennifer’s body, and Lauren, who suffered stomach problems since the killing. Clayton was close to his lost sister and missed her deeply. Hailey no longer felt safe in crowds, and Whitney hated sitting in a bathroom. “Jim takes a licking and keeps on kicking,” she said, wiping away tears and smiling at him in the gallery. “He’s our Bondo, and he holds us all together. He loves us even when we’re not very lovable.”
In the jury box, two of the women jurors dabbed at their eyes. The murder had torn all their lives apart, Sharon said. It had affected them all. And none of them would ever be the same person again. Jennifer, Sharon said, was the family mediator, the one all the others counted on to run interference. “Jennifer, bless her heart, she was a big old sounding board.”
For the past year, Sharon said, she’d gone to a counselor. But it was their pastor, Father David, who “taught me how to live again.” She’d been so nervous about the trial, but her pastor’s words spurred her on. “He said, ‘This is it, kiddo. This is the last thing you can do for Jennifer. The last gift you can give her.’”
Sharon held a tissue to her eyes and sobbed, then shuddered, as if to shake off the grief. Whitney had married the June before, and Sharon said, “It’s hard to have what’s supposed to be such a happy event and have it tinged with so much sadness. So much loss.”
When did Sharon miss her dead daughter? “It’s Christmas. It’s Easter. It’s Thanksgiving, which was her favorite because she loved buttermilk pie. It’s hitting a sale at Dillard’s. It’s the little everyday things, like seeing something and thinking Jennifer would love that.”
Roy Minton asked no questions, and as Sharon walked back to her seat, many had tears collecting in their eyes, both on the jury and in the gallery. When she reached him, Jim stood up, wrapped his arms around her, and hugged her. She sat beside him, her head resting on his shoulder. One of the few who had remained unaffected as she talked was Colton Pitonyak. But Sharon thought she did see something, when she looked at him from the witness stand, a look that said the trial didn’t go as he’d planned.
“I think he truly believed he’d be getting in Eddie’s Toyota Sequoia and driving home to Arkansas with his parents,” she says.
The state rested, and the defense put on their witnesses. The first two were Colton’s high school friends: Ben Smith and Louis Petit. They were well-mannered young men, evidence of their strict Catholic schooling. “If you asked anybody, Colton had one of the brightest futures,” Smith said. “He was a good guy.”
Then how could he be in the courtroom today? How could Colton, “a good guy,” be found guilty of such a horrendous crime? “He fell in with the wrong people, and just kind of went out of control,” Smith said. “He was constantly drunk or high, but now, since he’s had a chance to clean up, it’s helped him to get perspective on things. I think he understands how bad everything was.”
From the witness stand, Louis Petit recalled how he first met Colton at Catholic High School. “I was new at the school at the time, and he befriended me. He was my best friend,” he said. “We did everything together…football, worked out, played sports…he was almost genius level, driven, ambitious. He had a brilliant future.”
Like Smith, Petit talked of the change the drugs brought on, and then about the letters he’d received since the arrest. “He’s sober now, clear-minded, able to assess situations better.” Sadly, of course, Colton Pitonyak’s rehabilitation, if he’d had one, had come too late to save Jennifer Cave’s life.
A portly man with large glasses, Johnny Morris, a structural steel salesman and Colton’s middle school football coach, got on the stand. “Colton was a good kid. A shining star. He got along with everybody, and was always willing to help. Good natured,” Morris said. He’d known Bridget and Eddie for thirteen years. “They’re good people.”
Roy Minton asked if Morris ever thought he’d be testifying for Colton in a case like this one. “Never,” Morris said. Like the others who’d come to support the former scholarship student, Morris knew where the blame lay: “…drugs are a problem where society looks the other way. I’ve seen many young men go this route. Drugs get a hold of them. They’re afraid to ask their parents for help. Once it gets you it gets you. Out of control and tragedies like this happen.”
Colton’s math teacher, Tommy Coy, then took the stand. “Colton made the highest grades in all assignments, all tests, he never had anything lower than a 98. Academically, he was always at the top of his class,” he said. “He was always very respectful…Colton was the last young man I would have anticipated something like this happening to.”
As Colton’s father then took the stand, he appeared nervous, his hand shaking slightly with the papers he held. And he looked angry, his dark brows arched. The son of generations of farmers, in his dark suit he appeared as he was in life, a successful business owner.
With Sam Bassett, Eddie put before the jury two photos of Colton, one at age twelve or thirteen, his soft, dark hair long across his forehead, a smile on his face, an appealing adolescent with bright eyes. The second photo showed Eddie, Colton, and his brother, Dustin, on a family fishing trip, the wholesome freshness of the outdoors surrounding them. Then Bassett suggested Eddie read a statement he prepared.
“First I’d like to tell Mrs. Cave that my family and I are very sorry for the loss of your daughter Jennifer,” he read. He paused and looked up at Sharon, then quickly back down at the paper before him. He recounted the two times he’d met Jennifer, including the dinner at Sullivan’s. Eddie read the statement, glancing up, appearing nervous. “Colton was very defensive to Jennifer about us.”
To show the jurors that Colton wasn’t as he’d been portrayed in the courtroom, a would-be gangster, Eddie said his younger son didn’t like to hunt and would rather be home playing his guitar or out with his friends. “He just wasn’t interested in guns and hunting.”
Colton was in the top ten in scholarships when he graduated from Catholic High. He’d had so many opportunities, but he’d chosen UT, and the Pitonyaks were glad. “Colton was honored to be accepted into the program,” Eddie said. He talked about Texas, over and over, in positive terms, how good UT’s reputation was, how happy he and Bridget were that Colton chose the McCombs Business School. Perhaps Eddie Pitonyak felt out of place coming from Arkansas. Perhaps he thought praising the university would please the jury.
Then Colton’s father again addressed Sharon. “As previously mentioned to Mrs. Cave, we’re all truly sorry for the accident [emphasis added] with Jennifer’s death,” Pitonyak said. Perhaps he didn’t realize that the jury had discarded the accident theory, labeling the killing murder, or perhaps he meant to reintroduce it, to assert it once again. Even after the verdict, Eddie Pitonyak insisted his son wasn’t guilty.
“There’s nothing any of us can do to bring [Jennifer] back,” he said, dismissing any notion that coming down hard on Colton could alleviate her family’s pain.
For the jury, Eddie described seeing Colton for the first time at the jail, separated by a glass wall, Colton so encumbered by chains he couldn’t “even scratch his nose.” Colton had already spent seventeen months in jail, his father pointed out, a hardship for their entire family. Bridget longed to put her arms around her son, and had asked her husband what police would do if she ran up to him in the courtroom and hugged him. Eddie said, “I told her they would take their billy clubs out and beat her silly or worse. Bridget said, ‘It might be worth it.’”
“We’re not a rich family,” Eddie said, maintaining they couldn’t put up the million-dollar bond to get Colton out of jail. “[T]his was a terrible experience for both families. There were TV crews parked outside our house and everyone in the world had heard about this…Colton and his family will suffer from this tragedy for years to come…it affects both families…Colton will have to deal with this for the rest of his life.”
Once the defense attorneys passed the witness, Bill Bishop asked about Eddie Pitonyak’s conversation with Sharon the day she’d come to Austin looking for Jennifer. “Do you remember telling her that you were upset that she’d contacted your sister[-in-law] in Arkansas?” Bishop asked.
“If I’d known what was going on at the time, I would have handled it differently,” Eddie conceded.
“Do you remember telling Mr. Sedwick that you and your wife thought it was all Jennifer’s fault, that she was part of the problem?” Bishop prodded.
A blank look on his face, Pitonyak shook his head, hesitated just a moment, and then said, “No.”
Eddie didn’t pat his wife on the shoulder or make any physical move toward her when they passed as she walked to the witness stand. Roy Minton introduced Bridget again to the jury, and then asked her to read the letter she’d prepared, saying everyone would understand if she became overcome with emotion and needed to stop.
From the start, Bridget’s eyes filled with tears, and pain twisted her voice. “First, Sharon, I’m so sorry for all your family is going through,” Bridget said. She said she’d met Jennifer only once, but she was lovely. And “she’s the only girl Colton ever, ever mentioned when he was down here. He always talked about Jennifer being his friend, something they’d done together or laughed about. I never heard any other girl’s name. He was very fond of her.
“For the past seventeen months, I’ve listened as my son has been portrayed as a monster,” she said. “Nothing could be further from the truth…because of his problems with alcohol and drugs, I wouldn’t have been surprised about a call about his death, and had on some level prepared myself for it. But I never imagined this could happen. It’s not in his character to hurt anybody…especially a friend. Especially someone he loved deeply.”
On the stand, Bridget was likable, warm, smiling at the jury, as she talked. The mother talked of her pride in the old Colton, the bright, precocious child, and behind the defense table, for the first time in the entire trial, Colton Pitonyak cried. His face flushed, and he sobbed as his mother talked about his good qualities, how he’d helped others, and poured himself into everything he did, from swimming competitions to studies. He’d always had a lot of female friends.
“He was always very protective of his female friends. He called home a few years ago, extremely upset that a friend had been raped,” she read. “Colton couldn’t understand how someone could hurt a woman like that. He was sad and angry.”
Colton had sat stone-faced through Sharon Cave’s emotional testimony, but having his mother on the stand had finally gotten through to him, perhaps driving home for the first time that it had all truly happened. He was no longer playing the tough guy, the wannabe gangster. The jury had named him a murderer.
Bridget, however, like Eddie, disagreed. “It is beyond my comprehension,” she said, “that Colton would ever intentionally harm someone, especially a woman.”
In his letters home, Colton, she said, was always trying to comfort them. “When Eddie and I spoke with him last Thursday night by phone, his concern was for our state of mind, not his,” Bridget said, as her barely controlled demeanor broke and she began sobbing, her face a bookend of grief to the way Sharon had appeared on the witness stand when talking about Jennifer.
“I believe with everything…” Bridget began, but she was overcome with emotion, stopping and covering her mouth with her hand. “I believe with everything I am that Colton could not and would not harm his best friend Jennifer. He’s not a cold-hearted murderer. He’s not.”
Colton, she said, had suffered. The last year and a half, he’d been in “anguish and pain for the loss of his friend. Undoubtedly he’ll spend the rest of his life with this pain.
“We love him so much and he’s such a good man,” Bridget said. Looking at her son in the courtroom, her eyes welling with tears, she said, “I love you, Colton.”
After Bridget finished, the defense rested, and Bishop asked to call a rebuttal witness. There was a matter in Eddie’s testimony he wanted to contradict. Jim, already sworn earlier in the trial, took the stand, and Bishop asked about the telephone conversation with Eddie. “On the phone, I said, ‘We’re just looking for Jennifer. We need some help,’” Jim recounted. “‘If you can help, because your son was the last person she was seen with.’ And Eddie said, ‘I don’t have any idea where they are. I don’t know what you’re talking about. And as a matter of fact, my wife tells me that when she met Jennifer down there, that she thinks Jennifer is really the whole problem on this deal.’ And that was the end of the conversation.”
Between the testimonies of Colton’s parents, Eddie calling the killing an accident and Bridget saying she couldn’t believe their son killed Jennifer on purpose, Jim’s words only drove home that the Pitonyaks, despite all they’d been through with Colton, still had no idea what the drugs had done to him. They didn’t understand the man he’d become or what the new Colton, fueled by meth, was capable of.
Of the four attorneys, perhaps Roy Minton was the only one not worried about his final argument before the jury that would decide Pitonyak’s destiny. Minton didn’t believe what he had to say at the very end would change minds. “The overwhelming amount of decision making is done by jurors a little at a time throughout the trial,” he said. “Those jurors had been making up their minds from voir dire on.”
Sam Bassett, meanwhile, hoped jurors would show “a little compassion.”
As she had during the guilt and innocence phase, McFarland was the first to address the jurors. She explained the law, that the jurors could assess a punishment anywhere from probation to life in prison. She told them that she expected life. “What we have here is the most heinous of murders,” McFarland said. Colton’s parents had asked for leniency, but were they entitled to consideration? “Jennifer is not only dead, but what they did to her…that is the most cruel thing I can think of. The defendant didn’t show any leniency to Jennifer, and the state asks you not to show any leniency toward him.”
“I think you have the hardest job,” Minton said to the jurors. “Particularly when you are dealing with young people.”
Colton, he said, was not a hardened criminal with a long rap sheet. Instead, he was a “youngster who’d led an incredibly great life,” the defense attorney said. Before the drugs, Colton had discipline, charm, thoughtfulness, and until he got to UT, he had never been in trouble. In fact, Colton Pitonyak had lived an admirable life, one that should have led to a stellar future.
Again, Minton talked about Colton as if he were still a young boy. The defendant was the age of Minton’s grandchildren. “You never quit worrying about them…It’s a constant pain,” the elder defense attorney confided, his voice low. “Put yourself in the place of Eddie and Bridget, with a youngster who had done so well. He came down here to this school and went to hell in a hand basket.”
Society’s biggest problem was drugs, Minton said, and it was “devastating our young people.” Minton shook his head, and sighed. “How the drugs seem to get a hold of a youngster. That is inconceivable…Compare the conduct of the Colton who came to Austin in 2001, with the world ahead of him.”
Turning to the jurors, he advised them to watch their children carefully. If their grades drop, “jerk them out like a rocket shot,” he advised, and then send them for counseling and treatment. “I wish that I could have told Eddie that. I wish I could have told Bridget that.” But then, Minton said, he, too, had made mistakes as a parent. “And who in the world would know better than I?”
What the aging defense attorney didn’t acknowledge was that the Pitonyaks had done just that. Could they have done more? Perhaps. But they’d sent Colton to rehab and brought him home to attempt to turn him around. It hadn’t worked. Colton hadn’t wanted to change.
“Rehabilitation is what we’re supposed to be doing here,” Minton said. He’d seen young people sentenced to prison who spent their lives behind bars. “I don’t want to see Colton in the penitentiary…What are we thinking about but revenge if we are talking about sending a youngster to the penitentiary for a life term?”
As he continued, Minton again argued that Colton hadn’t cut up Jennifer’s body; the blame for that rested with Laura Hall. Colton, he admitted, would be going to prison. But for how long?
“You are going to give Colton more than five years,” he said. Then Minton made a suggestion: “Twenty years. I didn’t say ten and I didn’t say five…this young man is salvageable…this boy is not hopeless.”
“I disagree with something specific Mr. Minton said, when he said there’s not one scintilla of evidence Colton Pitonyak has a mean streak…the evidence in the trial is before you. I don’t think you could have any more evidence of someone having a mean streak,” Bill Bishop said. He talked of how Pitonyak was arrested for the drunk-driving charge, and he was sent to counseling. After the possession charge, he went to rehab. Both charges were plea-bargained down. “He got off easy. Now this attorney is standing before you asking you to let him off easy?
“If you let him off easy, it’s on the twelve of you that he’s out there again,” Bishop said. He agreed with Minton that there was a chance Colton could come out of prison a better person. But there was another possibility. “There’s a chance he could do this again…He had every opportunity in the world to rehabilitate, and he sat there and told you he had no interest in that.”
Colton’s mother had been highly emotional on the stand, touching, overcome with pain. “It’s very hard to look at Bridget Pitonyak and tell her that her son needs to go to prison for life, but that, ladies and gentlemen, is not your grief to feel, because you are not the reason she is here.”
“He did this,” Bishop said, staring at the defendant. “Colton Pitonyak. If there is grief to be felt it is not on your shoulders. It is on his.”
Much had been put before the jury to show them that they weren’t judging an underprivileged young man, one who’d had to scrape to survive. “This is not a person who didn’t know better,” Bishop said. “This is not a person who didn’t have every opportunity to succeed. And he threw that back in the faces of those who gave it to him.
“…the depravity involved…does not deserve leniency…there could be no other sentence than life in prison.”
At 4:30 P.M., the jurors again left to deliberate Colton Pitonyak’s fate.
Afterward, one, Alan Stuber, would say that while they’d agreed on Pitonyak’s guilt with the first ballot, when it came to punishment, they were vastly further apart. They’d all been affected by the case. The night the autopsy photos were shown, few had been able to sleep. “It was hard to go through that experience and not even be able to talk about it,” Stuber said, referring to the judge’s order not to discuss the case with anyone until the trial ended. While their hearts went out to Jennifer’s family, Stuber and others on the jury felt for the Pitonyaks as well. Some wanted the sentence to be life, others fifty years, and some ten or fifteen years. For a while, Stuber feared they’d deadlock, unable to reach a unanimous agreement. The wait would again not be long, however. At 5:55, the word came down. The jury had reached a decision.
Minutes later, the jurors reentered the courtroom. The Pitonyaks huddled together, as Sharon and Jim held hands. The entire courtroom felt on edge, as the jury foreperson rose to read the decision. Colton Pitonyak was sentenced to fifty-five years in the Texas prison system.
Bridget and Eddie Pitonyak sobbed, as Colton rose to make a statement. The brilliant student, the kid with the bright future, uttered his final words before disappearing into the jail to await the van that would take him to prison.
“I just want to apologize to everyone here,” he said.
The courtroom remained silent. Judge Flowers dismissed the jurors, and Sam Bassett remembered feeling “like I was at a funeral.”
Colton was handcuffed and taken from the courtroom, as his father tried to comfort his sobbing mother. On the opposite side of the courtroom, Jim made a fist and raised it into the air, and Jennifer’s entire family cried as well. Bill Bishop’s face flushed, and he, too, cried. He hugged Jim, then Sharon, then the rest of the family. Fifty-five years was a formidable sentence. Pitonyak wouldn’t be eligible for parole for nearly thirty years.
Outside the courtroom, the media waited. Eddie and Bridget left quickly, without giving a statement. But Vanessa stopped to talk to reporters. “Colton got what he deserves,” she said. “Jennifer was one of the best people you could ever meet. She cared for the world.”
It was over. The nightmare had ended. Or had it? Laura Hall was still free, and Bishop now had Pitonyak’s version of Wednesday, August 17, 2005, the day Jennifer died. In Colton’s recitation of the events, Hall played the major role in not only the flight to Mexico but the gruesome desecration. Javier Rosales said Hall admitted helping to cut up the body.
“We’re looking at filing additional charges against Laura Hall,” Bishop told reporters. “We now believe she played a bigger part in the case.”