*******by Kathryn Casey*******
It seems to me that it’s time to change the rules. A total revamp is in order. We’ve got to trust jurors to set firm guidelines for how long an inmate serves. They, after all, are the ones handing down the conviction. They’re the ones who sit through mountains of testimony and sort through piles of physical evidence. So why do we ban judges from telling jurors the truth, that the sentence they hand down is only a suggestion, and that the guilty parties will most likely spend only a fraction of their sentences behind bars?
This comes to mind because of the book I just finished, “Descent into Hell: an altar boy, a cheerleader, and a twisted Texas murder.” It’s on Austin’s bizarre Colton Pitonyak case. Pitonyak was a charismatic, handsome kid from Little Rock, Arkansas. He’d had all the advantages: loving, well-to-do parents, a private school education, an intellect so spectacular that his teachers predicted he’d one day make a name for himself in the world of international business.
That course took a detour, however, when Pitonyak left Little Rock for Austin, to attend the University of Texas’ esteemed McCombs Business School. Pitonyak was so bright, he brought along with him a $150,000 scholarship. Pretty nice. Of course, that didn’t prevent him from soon using his entrepreneurial skills in a vastly different way. Within two years of his UT arrival, Pitonyak was a druggie, and a gangster-wanna-be drug dealer, supplying other students with everything from ecstasy to meth to heroin. Enter Jennifer Cave, a pretty, smart young woman from Corpus Christi. Jennifer had her own battle with drugs even before she met Pitonyak, but once they became friends, her life began to disintegrate. Still, she was the type of kid who kept trying, and she was just finally beginning to turn her life around, get off the drugs and refocus her life, when the worst happened.
In August 2005, Pitonyak murdered Cave in his West Campus apartment. That’s when Laura Ashley Hall (photo above) entered this tragic picture. Eager to ingratiate herself to Pitonyak, not only her dealer but the target of her warped affections, Hall helped Pitonyak mimic his favorite gangster flicks. How does a made guy get rid of a body? Hey, we’ve seen it dozens of times, on everything from “The Sopranos” to “Goodfellas.”
Got a body to dispose of? No sweat. Cut it up and throw it away.
That’s what Hall helped Pitonyak do, cut up Jennifer Cave’s body to get it ready to throw away. Yeah, sick, I know, but what else would you expect of punk like Pitonyak and a delusional wanna-be girlfriend like Hall?
Hall and Pitonyak’s plan fell apart when Jennifer’s mom, Sharon, discovered her daughter was missing. Sharon and her fiancée, Jim Sedwick, quickly went searching for Jennifer, and their path led to Pitonyak’s apartment. With Jennifer’s family and possibly the police on their way, Hall spirited Pitonyak away to Mexico in her green Cadillac, telling friends, “That’s just the way I roll.”
It was Jim Sedwick who discovered what was left of Jennifer, her headless, handless body, in Pitonyak’s bathtub.
There’s obviously a bunch more to this case, all of which I detail in the book. The result, however, was that Pitonyak was caught and later convicted of murder, sentenced to 55 years. Hall was convicted of misdemeanor hindering apprehension and felony tampering with evidence, for a sentence of five years. Pitonyak is in a Texas prison, and should remain there for at least a couple of decades, Hall, however, is another matter.
Although she's served only a little more than six months in the Travis County Jail, Hall is already eligible for parole.
Yes, ladies and gentleman, this fine, upstanding young woman, who was totally unrepentant at her trial, who was overheard still calling the victim, “a total bitch,” in the courtroom hallway, is being considered for parole after serving little more than six months of a five-year sentence. Not much punishment to be metered out for a horrendous crime, and I’d be willing to wager, not much opportunity to impress upon Hall the need for reform.
Of course, at her trial, as at all trials, the judge wasn’t allowed to tell jurors how little time Hall could actually serve. In the judge’s orders to the jury, it was legally banned from considering the likelihood of parole. This isn’t an isolated case. To the best of my knowledge, in nearly all states where jurors set punishment, they are prevented by law from considering the effect parole can have on a sentence. It’s like saying: Come up with a fair sentence, and remember to banish from your minds the reality that they’ll probably only serve one-eighth of that time.
Here’s another example. In my first book, “The Rapist’s Wife,” in 1992, serial rapist and psychopath James Bergstrom was given four 99-year-sentences. Fifteen years later, this past March, Bergstrom was up for parole. The jury never wanted him to be a free man, but once he became eligible, they no longer had a voice. The decision on Bergstrom’s freedom would be made by a parole board who heard none of the testimony, including the painful recounting by the victims of their terrible ordeals and the chilling after-effects on their lives.
To keep Bergstrom behind bars, his ex-wife, Linda, and I began a letter writing campaign. We went on television, and I wrote a plea for letters on my website, resulting in thousands of folks writing the Texas parole board to protest Bergstrom’s release. That worked and he was denied, but every three years from this point forward, Bergstrom will have another chance to walk out those prison doors, and we’ll have to fight again. We can’t rest, because if James Bergstrom is free, no woman he comes in contact with is safe.
Just this past week, Sharon Cave mounted a similar campaign to keep Hall behind bars. If you’d like to help, it’s easy, just visit my website and click on the guestbook, where you’ll find directions to file a parole protest. The process is as easy as an email or a fax.
The bottom line, however, is that it’s time we allowed juries to consider all the facts, including the likelihood of parole. Let them truly have a voice in determining how long convicted felons stay locked up. The jurors who sentence are in the best position to understand that a deranged kid like Hall needs a real lesson and that a sicko like Bergstrom can’t be trusted on public streets.