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Appeal Dead for Man Who Dismembered Pal

(CN) - Evidence against a University of Texas student convicted of murdering and dismembering his friend was too strong for the trial to have been affected by the late discovery of his accomplice's jailhouse confession, the 5th Circuit ruled.

Some time after enrolling in the University of Texas on a scholarship in 2003, Colton Pitonyak had developed a drug and alcohol problem.

On Aug. 16, 2005, Pitonyak drank a lot of vodka, took several Xanax and called his friend Jennifer Cave.

She told him she was celebrating her receipt of a job offer at a law firm, and the pair went out with others for drinks. Eventually they left the group and went back to Pitonyak's apartment.

Pitonyak testified that he had no memory of anything that happened until the next morning when he woke up and found Cave dead in the bathtub.

In a panic, Pitonyak called Laura Hall, a woman allegedly "obsessed" with him, who convinced him to attempt getting rid of the body.

Pitonyak went to a hardware store, told the owner he needed to cut up a turkey, and bought a hacksaw, towels, gloves, masks, extra large trash bags, ammonia and odor eliminator.

Then he, or Hall, cut off Cave's head and hands, and stabbed her 29 times on the face, chest and hand.

Cave's mother called Pitonyak twice while he was dismembering her daughter's body, first to ask him when he had last seen Cave. Pitonyak said he had parted with her after dinner. The second time, she told him the police were on their way to have a word with him.

He and Hall immediately threw some clothes in a bag and left the apartment, stopped by Hall's apartment to get her belongings, and drove to Mexico.

Meanwhile, the boyfriend of Cave's mother broke into Pitonyak's apartment and found Cave's body.

Mexican police arrested Pitonyak and Hall four days later.

At trial, Pitonyak blamed Hall entirely for both killing and dismembering Cave. He also accepted responsibility for Cave's death, however, and repeatedly said he had no memory whatsoever of the events that night.

Pitonyak was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to 55 years in prison, while Hall got 10 years for hindering apprehension and tampering with physical evidence.

In a petition for post-conviction review, Pitonyak pointed to a note in Hall's jail file in which jail counselor Carrie Hoffman said that Hall confessed to the murder. Hall is quoted in the note as saying, "That whore deserved to die. She was just a dancer anyway."

Pitonyak said the note had not been disclosed to his defense counsel, but the 5th Circuit rejected his appeal Wednesday, finding that any failure to disclose the information did not prejudice Pitonyak's defense.

"While the materiality of Hoffman's notation presents a difficult question, we cannot say that the state court was unreasonable in finding Hoffman's notation to be immaterial to Pitonyak's guilt or punishment," Judge Patrick Higginbotham wrote for a three-judge panel in New Orleans.

"There is substantial evidence that an alternate perpetrator defense would not have succeeded," Higginbotham added. "In addition to his amnesic admission of guilt, Pitonyak testified that he did recall Hall arriving at his apartment the morning of August 17 after he found Cave's body in his bathtub; that Hall asked why Cave's purse was in Pitonyak's living room; and that he led her to the bathroom to show her Cave's body. Moreover, undisputed telephone records show that Pitonyak called Hall at 5:59 a.m. and that they spoke again at 6:57 a.m. and 7:24 a.m., corroborating Pitonyak's testimony that Hall was not present at the time of Cave's death."

Based on these facts, Hall's uncorroborated confession did not undermine the court's confidence in the verdict, the judge concluded.

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