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Was Laura Hall a Murder Accomplice?

Trial of Laura Hall, accused of tampering with evidence and hindering apprehension of Colton Pitonyak in connection with the August 2005 murder of 21-year-old Jennifer Cave, began Aug. 28

By Jordan Smith, Fri., Aug. 31, 2007

The trial of Laura Hall, who is accused of tampering with evidence and hindering apprehension of Colton Pitonyak in connection with the August 2005 murder of 21-year-old Jennifer Cave, began in a Travis Co. district court on Aug. 28.

Cave was found shot, stabbed, and partially dismembered in the bathtub inside Pitonyak's apartment in West Campus on Aug. 17, 2005. Earlier this year, Pitonyak was found guilty of murdering Cave, whom he referred to as his "best friend," and sentenced to 55 years in prison. Pitonyak said he was responsible for killing Cave – shooting her with a .38-caliber pistol sometime in the wee hours of Aug. 17 – but that he didn't remember actually killing her because he was too addled from a several-day bender, during which he consumed a large amount of booze, pills, and cocaine. When he woke up and found the body, he panicked, he said, and instead of calling the police, he called Hall, who came over to his apartment. He said it was Hall who came up with a plan to dismember Cave's body – she made a list of supplies that would be needed (a hacksaw, gloves, cleaning products), which he retrieved from the hardware store. That night, the two fled to Mexico, with Hall in the driver's seat, where they stayed for about a week before being ejected from the country, picked up by federal marshals, and returned to Austin.

In court Monday, however, Hall's attorney, Joe James Saw­yer, said Pitonyak's story was just that, a story made up by a "sociopath." Hall, he argued to the jury, was under Pitonyak's spell and, it seems, lulled by an abusive relationship into an after-the-fact conspiracy to avoid responsibility for Cave's murder. Whether that is true – or, more importantly, whether prosecutors can prove otherwise – remains to be seen.

According to one witness, Nora Sullivan, a neighbor of Pitonyak's in the Orange Tree Apartments, Pitonyak came to her apartment around 3am on Aug. 17, talking nonsense about being in a gun fight with several Mexicans – they fired five rounds at him, he told her, and he'd fired back twice, she recalled. Sullivan's testimony was cut short, however, when she began to testify about later interaction with Hall, including a conversation she had with Hall during which Hall allegedly told her that in the hours after the murder, Pitonyak sat on the couch in his apartment, drinking beer and watching TV and not using the items purchased at the hardware store to take care of Cave's body. Sullivan said Hall seemed frustrated when telling her about how she'd tried to "motivate" Pitonyak to deal with the body. Sawyer objected to the testimony (given outside the presence of the jury), arguing that prosecutors had failed to notify him about the alleged conversations, meaning he had no advance notice to prepare for the potential bombshell testimony, to interview Sullivan, and to prepare any rebuttal to her testimony. District Judge Wilford Flowers agreed with Sawyer, noting that the state had a "duty to disclose this [information to Sawyer] immediately" and ruling Sullivan's testimony would be put on hold until Hall's attorneys had a chance to review and prepare. "I'm not saying [Sullivan's testimony isn't] coming in," Flowers said, "but it's not coming in this morning – that's for sure."

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