Friday, August 31, 2007

Laura Hall Trial: Answers to a Few Questions That Weren't Posted Here Earlier

I've gotten some questions through other forums/forms of media I'd like to try to briefly answer here.

1.Was that a bodyguard with Nora Sullivan when she testified?

I asked a few court reporter veterans, and they all said it's not uncommon for an officer of the Court, like someone from the sheriff's department, to accompany a witness to & from their testimony in a criminal trial. It's not done for all witnesses, but it's also not all that unusual.

2. How effective was Sawyer's cross exam of the jail snitch?

Sawyer was able to elicit that she had more than the one conviction to which she admitted. She also served a bit of time in Travis County for something like misrepresenting her fiduciary responsibility re someone's property, which Sawyer likened to stealing the property. Sawyer also got her to admit she'd served time in the penitentiary in New Zealand (over 10 years ago) for something related to an illegal baby adoption. (She was very vague about the New Zealand thing.)

3. Why did the defense call the cell phone guy as witness?

Sawyer needed to show that APD didn't follow through w/obtaining the cell phone TOWER location info from Hall's phone, which would at least show the difference in location between calls made north (CP apartment) of the river versus south (Hall's apartment) of the river. APD did do this for Pitonyak's cell phone, which requires some special court order for the tower info.
The detective said that Hall's cell phone provider company gave them an incomplete report, omitting the tower location info, but he didn't really have an explanation as to why the detective or someone at APD didn't follow up to obtain that tower info.

4. What was Hall's Facebook "name"?

That info wasn't presented. What was presented from her retrieved Facebook profile page (dated 8-24-05 & last updated 8/15/05) were some favorite movies, including Ronin, Pulp Fiction, Napoleon Dynamite, Scarface, Donnie Brasco, and Scent of a Woman. (There were more movies listed, but I didn't catch the rest, sorry.) Posted under the additional information section, "summer plans", was "I should really be a more horrific person; it's in the works."


Verdict In; Sentencing Phase Tuesday 9 a.m.

Around 3:40, after about 14 hours of deliberation over 2 days, the jury returned with its verdict:
Not Guilty on the 3rd-degree felony Hindering Apprehension
Guilty of the lesser-included Class A Misdemeanor Hindering Apprehension
Guilty of the 3rd-degree felony Tampering with Evidence

I'm virtually positive, but not entirely because I'm not a lawyer, that the Tampering w/Evidence conviction carries a sentence of 2 to 10 years, any amount of which could be probation instead. If the jury recommends probation, the judge must accept it.

The Class-A misdemeanor carries a sentence of up to a year, & is likely to be of no consequence because it would be rolled into the other sentence. (I guess it's technically possible they could recommend probation only on the felony count but recommend the year in jail for the misdemeanor.)

The sentencing phase begins Tuesday morning at 9 a.m., with witness testimony expected to last about an hour before the jury begins sentencing deliberations.

Before the verdict was read, Judge Flowers gave a strong warning that anyone who felt they wouldn't be able to contain their emotions at th announcement should leave the courtroom right then & there & someone would tell them the verdict outside ASAP. No one left, & there was nothing remotely close to an outburst when the verdict was read. The prosecution then requested that Hall's bond be revoked & that she be put in custody. The judge denied that.

The Cave family looked relieved & satisfied & hugged each other and the prosecutors before they left the courtroom. When the courtroom was fairly empty, Hall's mom cried. Laura sat by her boyfriend, who hugged her & rubbed her back, and she cried some, too.

I'm worn out now. I'll try to fill in some holes or answer questions later this weekend.

Lunch Has Been Ordered for the Jury and

there haven't been any questions today. We're all just hanging out, getting a little punchy and wondering what could possibly be taking them so long... I'm borrowing this computer 'cause the wireless doesn't really exist here.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Jurors to Resume Deliberations Tomorrow 9 a.m.

Ahhh--left-over veggies & a glass of Riesling!

Jury's deliberated over 8 hours so far, and the DNA question they had sounded very defense-oriented, at least to me (& to two "real" reporters I asked.) I don't think I'm the only one who is a little surprised they didn't reach a verdict tonight. Met a woman from "48 Hours" there today, too. She said they're doing a story on Pitonyak/Hall trials--the whole 9 yards.

I'm too pooped now to check my notes for more quotes from today's closing arguments or more quotes from yesterday's former-LH cellmate witness. I promise I'll try to find the sweet spot where I can get a halfway decent wireless signal outside the courtroom tomorrow. Can't promise I'll find it--damn damn damn. Thank you tonight to my patient husband, who took my notes over the phone & posted for me when I couldn't get any wireless connection.

Brief reply to a coupla comment questions:

Yes, I found the cellmate's testimony credible. I also found Nora Sullivan's testimony fairly credible, even though I don't understand why she waited so long to come forward with the info of her conversation w/Hall in which Hall complained about being frustrated that CP was procrastinating instead of getting in the bathroom to finish his task.

I thought Hall & her folks appeared to remain confident today, especially after the jury's DNA question.

Crashing now.

Judge Releases Jurors Tonight at 10:30

So they've deliberated about 7.75 hours so far. I just got home after being there since 8:30 this morning. A little more soon after I get some dinner.

Jury Now Has DNA Question

They want a readback of testimony from the DNA analyst, regarding whose DNA was found on CP's gun, the blue shop towel (found on CP's coffee table,) and the left sandal (found in CP's bathroom.)

To recap: DNA found on the gun appears to be a mixture of CP & LH; on the towel, of CP & LH; and on the sandal, of CP, LH & JC. All are non-blood DNA sources!

Pizza Coming at 7 p.m. for Deliberating Jury

Someone in the courtroom overheard Laura Hall say to her father, "I'll be shocked if we don't win; the jury would be making a big mistake." Allegedly she then said something along the lines of, "if we lose, I won't appeal because we can't afford it. It can't happen."

Guess I'll stay here until verdict or dismissal for the night. With super-crappy wi-fi here, may not be able to post again 'til late tonight.

Jury Just Started Deliberating!

The State rested their case this morning. The defense put on two quick witnesses and rested. Judge granted defense's request for lesser-included charges: attempted tampering w/evidence and a Class-A Misdemeanor version of hindering apprehension.

Snippets from closing arguments are as follows:

McFarland: "...Colton Pitonyak led Laura Hall down the road to hell, but she went willingly..." "Laura Hall referred to this as a victimless crime..."

Sawyer: "Colton Pitonyak killed her for nothing: he's the center of his universe and doesn't care about any of them (Cave or Hall.)" Sawyer strongly urged the jurors to focus on the LAW, however passionately they may disagree with decisions Hall made. Sawyer also focused on the lack of Hall's DNA found in CP's apartment.

Bishop wrapped up and showed the jury one of the photos of Cave's head & hands in plastic bags, (I think, because we in the gallery couldn't see the photo.)

Need a break. Will try to post more later.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Second Day: Laura Hall Trial Part 3

This one's gonna be brief for now or I'll never get to court on time tomorrow. The prosecution witness appearing after Sullivan is Henrietta Langenbach (HL), who appears to be in her early to mid-50s and was Laura Hall's cellmate for 3 weeks in summer/fall 2005. HL was in jail then & is currently on probation for some kind of fraudulent documentation re a real estate transaction. She describes her cellmate relationship w/Hall as somewhat motherly. She claims Hall talked to her allot. All the following statements are what Langenbach testified that Hall allegedly told her:
--Hall loved CP very much.
--Hall didn't refer to Jennifer Cave by her real name: Hall referred to Cave as that "fucking waitress ho" (to whom CP supplied drugs.)
--After a phone call to her original public defender, Hall talked about how she was trying to get in contact w/CP & her major concern was to get CP off on the murder charge & have it reduced to something that would only get him something like 10 years.
--After phone calls to her dad, Hall was mad (referring to her dad as that "fuckin' bastard") because her dad wouldn't get her a "real" attorney instead of an appointed public defender. Hall said she needed an attorney who could help her concoct a story to get them (Hall & CP) off.
-- Hall said she didn't understand what "all the fuss was about because Jennifer Cave was nothing, a nobody" & CP had a full scholarship & Cave was "just a waitress."

I'll fill in more details re this witness' direct testimony & cross exam sometime tomorrow, but one other comment Hall allegedly made to HL was when HL asked Hall how she (Hall) could go run errands, get gas & food, etc that day while there's a dead person in the bathroom? Hall allegedly replied, "Intelligent people are able to compartmentalize things--this (Cave's death) was a fact: I was hungry & needed to eat."

Hall also allegedly said, "How many grandmothers can tell their grandkids they cut up a body?"

Will have to finish this part up & describe the cross exam & more tomorrow...

Second Day: Laura Hall Trial Part 2

Prosecution's case-in-chief witness #23, Nora Sullivan, resumes her direct testimony (interrupted yesterday by an objection awaiting a ruling) after the lunch break. She tells of how Hall initiated contact w/her through Facebook in winter or spring of 2006 & they became friends. Nora consented to let Hall come w/her to the county jail for her 20-minute visit w/CP, although Hall had to stay out in the waiting room. Apparently CP had mentioned that his cell had a window to the outside & so maybe he could see Hall or vice versa from a distance.

According to Sullivan, in late spring 2006, after a jail visit, Hall mentioned that she had been frustrated w/CP earlier on the day they eventually left for Mexico because he was just sitting drinking a beer watching television when he should have been using the stuff from the hardware store in the bathroom. Hall said she had to "try to motivate him to do the task" in the bathroom & that he was procrastinating.

Sawyer's first sentence on cross exam of Sullivan was, "You've lied to the jury from the start about your relationship with Colton Pitonyak!" She said something along the lines of "I don't think I heard you right." He repeated it & she said, "no." Sawyer's voice is pretty loud & more accusatory than it's been so far in this trial. Sawyer continues this tone w/her as he goes through her previous accounts of CP's intoxicated, gun-toting 3 a.m. visit to her apartment of 8/17/05, and asks her, "you don't pick up the phone & call the police after he (CP) says he's just had a gunfight?? Sullivan replies, "no."

Sawyer continues along this line, asking if she approached the police officer at the scene w/the yellow crime scene tape all around to tell him anything? She simply replies, "no." Her answers are brief, her voice unwavering.

Sullivan admits she didn't talk about Hall w/the prosecution until January 2007. She claims she didn't talk about Hall w/ CP's defense attorney before CP's trial or during her testimony then because she wasn't asked about Hall. Sawyer ends the cross saying, "YOU, like Laura Hall and Jennifer Cave, fell for Colton Pitonyak!" Then he says something about how Sullivan "festered all this time," angry CP had been convicted & so she then called the DA about these Hall statements just last week. Sullivan repeats, "no" and is excused. Her bright blue eyes focus straight ahead as she leaves the courtroom.

Second Day: Laura Hall Trial Part 1

I got another $15 parking meter ticket. Laura Hall shows up to the courtroom with her folks, the older couple, and a different blonde woman and a young man--early 20s-ish. Later, Hall & the young man are holding hands in the hallway. The prosecution's case continues. The morning session began with Sawyer's cross of the DNA analyst. The main points made were that it can't be determined when DNA is placed on an item and how the only blood DNA items in which Hall could not be excluded (from the items submitted & tested) were Hall's panties and red sweatpants.

There is non-blood DNA from which Hall cannot be excluded on the pistol grip, slide, and medallion (where you place your fingers to push the magazine into the gun) of Colton Pitonyak's Smith & Wesson 380 (9mm) automatic pistol. The fatal bullet recovered from Jennifer Cave's torso and the bullet recovered from her brain were both compared to & matched the six rounds of live ammunition found in CP's gun.

Hall could not be excluded from being a contributor to a mixture (CP) of non-blood DNA from a blue shop towel from CP's coffee table or from a mixture (CP and JC) of non-blood DNA coming from a sandal located in CP's bathroom. There is no mention of whether the sandal appeared to be a woman's or a man's. All of this is a repeat of testimony in CP's trial, as was most of the rest of the morning, including the testimony of the medical examiner.

Sawyer asked the ME more detail about the left palm stab wound, and her answer did really jump out at me because it was something that I don't think came out in CP's trial: the stab wound on Cave's left palm was perimortem as opposed to the other stab wounds, which were clearly postmortem. My understanding of this is that the palm wound would have had to occur practically seconds before she died, or as she was dying, or very shortly (within a few minutes, I think) of her death. Seems like that would mean CP, and no one else, definitely inflicted at least that one palm wound very close in time to his shooting her.

In CP's trial, either CP testified that Hall was responsible for the postmortem stab wounds or that scenario was argued by the prosecution--can't remember which source I heard that from during CP's trial.

After the mid-morning break, the judge took the bench but Hall was nowhere to be seen. Sawyer (& her mom) left to find her, came back & said she was seconds away, that she'd gone downstairs. After another few minutes of her absence, Sawyer (& Hall's dad) left again & returned w/Hall. Sawyer apologized to the judge, saying his client had now been instructed to not leave the floor while court was in session. The judge sort of stared at Hall for a second then turned away & asked Bailiff Billy to bring in the jury. It was tense.

Finally, I got to hear information I hadn't heard in CP's trial! It came through the Deputy U.S. Marshall associated w/the fugitive task force in Del Rio. He participated in bringing CP, who was now under arrest, & Hall across the international bridge back to the U.S. side. He said Hall, who was not in custody, had been drinking & so he called her parents to come pick her up. In the almost 3 hours he waited w/Hall, she talked allot but said nothing about her or CP's involvement in the murder.

She did say she was angry w/the U.S. Marshalls & the Mexican officials & wanted to contact CP's attorney. She continued, saying she loved CP, that she wanted to stand by him no matter what happened, & that she wanted him out of jail. She kept talking, saying that she would "kill anybody who hurt Colton." Then she said "it should be up to the friends of a murder victim to avenge them and should not be a police matter."

On Sawyer's cross, the Deputy confirmed that the actual arrest warrant for CP was issued on 8/22/05, 2 days after Hall & CP had crossed the border into Mexico.

I couldn't get my wi-fi working properly during the lunch break, but I think I've got it figured out now & shall try to post at tomorrow's lunch break.

More new information came up in the afternoon session. First, Said Aziz II, the friend of CP's, Cave's, & Hall's, testified about Hall's calls to him in the early morning hours of 8/23/05, in which she said she couldn't believe they found them (CP & LH) so fast, that she'd been "all up in this shit since, like 2 hours into this shit" and that she'd just tell the police that she & CP had been on vacation. Aziz urged her to cooperate with the police. A few hours later, Hall text messaged him, asking for advice immediately, so he called her back.

Hall said she "wanted to protect CP and help him," at which point Aziz got angry w/Hall and asked her why she would go to Mexico w/someone wanted for murder. Hall replied that she loved CP and "that's just how I roll."

Aziz told her he thought she was crazy, especially when she said that she refused to believe people would talk to the police. Several hours later, Aziz answers one more call from Hall. This time she seems confused & scared & says she didn't know anything had happened until the Mexican police busted in their hotel room.

Aziz asks her if she's lying now or in her first story. She agrees she lied in the story she told him in the first few calls, maybe because she was trying to act tough & that now she was going to cooperate with police.

Upon Sawyer's cross examination, Aziz agreed that Hall sometimes exaggerated & "embroidered the truth." He said that CP cultivated a tough-guy image that Hall seemed to enjoy & find appealing: she was not afraid of him. He also agreed that CP was a known drug dealer.

Next up: Nora Sullivan returns to the stand and gets a fiery cross exam. Gotta eat dinner now. More after.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

First Day: Laura Hall Trial Part 2

A few more observations... Jury is composed of six women & six men. Prosecutor Bill Bishop's opening statement couldn't have lasted more than 5 minutes, focusing on the early morning text messages & 13-minute phone call between Hall & CP on August 17, 2005, the border crossing video & phone records on that drive to Mexico, Hall's traffic citation from Val Verde County dated 8-18-05, and statements made by Hall.

Defense attorney Joe James Sawyer's opened with "the devil is in the details." He then said (not exact quotes here but pretty close, I think) that CP was a real charmer: intelligent, handsome, National Merit Scholar, spoke French... But by CP's second year at UT he'd become the "go-to guy" for drugs around campus. He further stated that the jurors would see "the face of a beast" and that there was nothing accidental about Jennifer Cave's death; it was a deliberate, planned murder by CP. He said CP committed the murder for no other reason than to experience killing another human being, that he did it all by himself then used Hall, who thought the whole thing was an accident.

Sawyer said Hall was as much a pawn as Cave was and urged the jury to focus on the facts because "facts often speak more accurately than people." Sawyer concluded by saying that Hall was not guilty of anything other than loving someone too much and making stupid, foolish mistakes none of us would make.

That's all for today, but if anyone knows of a cheap-ish parking lot near the courthouse, please let me know--hoping to avoid too many $15 parking meter tickets! Also, I'm taking my laptop tomorrow and I'll try to post an update during the lunch break.

First Day: Laura Hall Trial Part 1

This will be pretty rough & rambling, but I'm posting now anyway. Just so you know, I'm not particularly pro-prosecution or pro-defense. I try to pretend I'm a juror & listen to & weigh the evidence. Not always possible, but I try.

The overall mood of the courtroom today is allot different than Pitonyak's trial--far more subdued, I think: something to do with the lack of CourtTV cameras in the courtroom? A local reporter told me that the reason for the camera ban is that Judge Flowers thought CourtTV was just horrible during the Pitonyak trial. I don't know why he hated them, though.

What's REALLY different, too, is that Hall's out on bond, so during breaks, etc, she'll sometimes walk back into the gallery & sit & whisper to her dad or mom. More often to her dad, it seems. When I walked out of the courthouse at lunch, Hall (along w/her folks) was sitting right outside the door eating her lunch.

During the afternoon break, I walked into the ladies' room--the only one on the 7th floor--and saw Hall, her mom, & the blonde lady. They were about to leave & were chatting quietly but their tone sounded pretty upbeat to me. Hall freshened up her make-up & they left. I was unable to make out anything they actually said.

Sitting up front on the defense side all day were Hall's parents, a blonde woman w/glasses, and an older couple. I'm guessing they're all relatives. Hall's body language, to me at least, suggests she's fairly confident. She & her mom both have very good posture.

Hall's main attorney, Joe James Sawyer, has a very professional presence. He seems comfortable & experienced but doesn't come across as cocky. (There's another older man attorney at Hall's table, too, but I don't know his name yet.) The prosecutors, Bill Bishop & Stephanie McFarland, are the same DAs from Pitonyak's trial & are both quite professional. McFarland appears to be pregnant.

Jennifer Cave's mom & stepdad, a sister, & some other relatives I recognize from Pitonyak's (from here on referred to as CP) trial were all there. Reps from most local press were around at one time or another. Note to self: don't be the first one to exit the courtroom during a break because three or four television cameras will be in my face.

Today's testimony was basically a total recap of the beginning of CP's trial, but they did get through 14.5 witnesses. The last witness, the DNA analysis supervisor, was just finishing up her testimony. I'll give you those results later.

The only real surprises today were revealed outside the presence of the jury while Nora Sullivan (CP's neighbor who let him in her place at 3 a.m. the morning of Cave's murder) was on the stand. Sullivan was telling the jury that, after CP's & Hall's arrests (when Hall was out of jail), Hall contacted her through Facebook. Don't know how Hall knew this, but Sullivan had visited CP in county jail.

Hall said she wasn't supposed to have contact w/CP, but could she please go w/Sullivan to see him. Sullivan took Hall w/her five to ten times, although I think Hall had to stay out in the waiting room.

At this point the defense objected & all approached the bench. Jury was sent out. It seems that during the last CP jail visit, Hall allegedly told Sullivan that she knew about the dismemberment & that she had been frustrated that CP was sitting in the living room watching TV, drinking a beer, when he should have been in the bathroom using the stuff from the hardware store to "work on" Cave's body.

Hall also allegedly told Sullivan something along the lines of this: that she was having to egg him on & was annoyed she might have to do some of the dismemberment herself.

The PROBLEM w/all this is that Sullivan only revealed this info re alleged conversations to the prosecution a week ago, and the defense (Sawyer) claims he knew nothing about these alleged conversations until right this minute today when Nora talked about them (outside the presence of the jury) & that the prosecution knows they're supposed to turn this info over to him!

Sawyer needs time to interview Sullivan at the least but thinks the sanction for the prosecution should be that these alleged admissions not be allowed into testimony. The judge said he'd rule on this later & for now, Sullivan would not be on the witness stand when the jury returned but was subject to recall.

(If you want more straight reportage, I suggest or

Gotta eat some dinner now. Will try to post a little more later tonight!

Monday, August 27, 2007

Eve of Laura Hall Trial

Greetings! I'm brand new at blogging--just created this one, my first ever, a few hours ago--but I'm not brand new at trial-watching. I attended the Austin, Texas murder trials of Michael Scott and Colton Pitonyak and have watched dozens of televised criminal trials over the years.

So, naturally, I'm looking forward to opening statements in Laura Hall's trial, scheduled for tomorrow morning. I shall be posting my trial observations here. Hall allegedly hindered apprehension of convicted murderer Colton Pitonyak by driving him to Mexico after he killed Jennifer Cave 2 years ago in his west campus condo, and she also allegedly tampered with evidence by dismembering or helping to dismember Cave's body.

Not sure how Hall can possibly be found not guilty of the hindering apprehension charge: I watched the video of her driving them across the border during Pitonyak's trial, among other strong evidence presented.

I'm very curious about the other charge, because I reviewed the DNA portion of my Pitonyak trial notes and was surprised at how few areas were identified as showing Hall's DNA. Maybe there actually was more Hall DNA evidence discovered but it wasn't admissable in Pitonyak's trial?

Don't know why Judge Flowers has banned cameras from the courtroom in Hall's trial when he allowed Court TV (who has a strict policy of not broadcasting disturbing images) to cover most of Pitonyak's trial.

-- Iris