Hall seeks new trial, again

Lawyers say de­tails of DnA lab trou­bles were with­held

Austin American-Statesman - - METRO & STATE - By Steven Krey­tak

Lawyers for Laura Ashley Hall have filed a mo­tion for new trial, ar­gu­ing that Travis County pros­e­cu­tors im­prop­erly with­held de­tails about re­cent prob­lems at the Austin Po­lice Depart­ment’s DNA lab be­fore Hall’s sen­tenc­ing re-trial.

Hall, 26, is serv­ing a 10-year sen­tence for tam­per­ing with ev­i­dence and hin­der­ing ap­pre­hen­sion in the 2005 murder and mu­ti­la­tion of 21-year-old Jen­nifer Cave in West Cam­pus.

At her sen­tenc­ing trial that ended July 2, pros­e­cu­tors pointed to DNA ev­i­dence in ar­gu­ing that Hall helped dis­mem­ber Cave’s body, which was found in con­victed mur­derer Colton Pitonyak’s bath­tub with the head and hands re­moved.

In a mo­tion filed late Thurs­day, Hall’s lawyer Joe James Sawyer said that on June 28 — the day of jury se­lec­tion — pros­e­cu­tors Al­li­son Wet­zel and Robert Smith ap­proached him and his co-coun­sel and let them read a doc­u­ment “out­lin­ing what they al­leged were per­son­nel is­sues by a dis­grun­tled” DNA lab em­ployee.

Sawyer said it was a short synopsis of claims made by for­mer DNA an­a­lyst

Ce­cily Hamil­ton, who wrote a 25-page mem­o­ran­dum in Fe­bru­ary out­lin­ing is­sues at the lab, in­clud­ing prob­lems she had with the qual­ity of case­work of fel­low an­a­lysts.

“Af­ter al­low­ing us to read the doc­u­ment they took it back,” Sawyer wrote of the synopsis. “They as­sured us it did not re­flect on the qual­ity of the work per­formed at the Austin Po­lice Depart­ment Foren­sic Sci­ence Di­vi­sion.”

Sawyer wrote that on July 7 he was among mem­bers of the de­fense bar who re­ceived from pros­e­cu­tors Hamil­ton’s mem­o­ran­dum and other doc­u­ments re­lated to the sub­se­quent in­ves­ti­ga­tion, in­clud­ing re­sponses to her com­plaints by co-work­ers.

Wet­zel said only that pros­e­cu­tors “dis­agree with the de­fense’s de­scrip­tion of what oc­curred, and the ap­pro­pri­ate place to re­spond is in the court­room.”

Travis County District At­tor­ney Rose­mary Lehm­berg and Austin Po­lice Chief Art Acevedo have said in re­cent weeks that they would soon bring in an out­side ex­pert to re­view the lab­o­ra­tory and Hamil­ton’s claims.

Those claims were at the heart of at least two other re­cent mo­tions for a new trial, both filed by men sen­tenced to decades in prison in May for their role in a 2009 home in­va­sion rob­bery.

De­fense lawyers in those cases ar­gued that al­le­ga­tions in the mem­o­ran­dum that DNA an­a­lyst El­iz­a­beth Mor­ris had prob­lems in her case­work in the past would have been help­ful in re­fut­ing DNA ev­i­dence in the case. State District Judge Char­lie Baird de­nied the mo­tions, not­ing that the prob­lems did not oc­cur when Mor­ris, who joined the lab in 2005, worked on the rob­bery cases.

It is un­clear which an­a­lysts worked on Hall’s case, but DNA lab su­per­vi­sor Cassie Car­ra­dine tes­ti­fied at Hall’s trial that Hall could not be ex­cluded as a con­trib­u­tor to DNA found on a gun used to kill Cave, a towel bought at a hard­ware store and a pair of flip-flops in the bath­room.

Pros­e­cu­tors said the DNA on the towel puts Hall at the scene af­ter the killing and that the flip-flops put her in the bath­room. De­fense lawyers pointed out that the find­ings were not strong enough to show a con­clu­sive link to Hall.

Nei­ther pros­e­cu­tors nor de­fense lawyers ques­tioned Car­ra­dine about the is­sues raised in Hamil­ton’s mem­o­ran­dum or the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

In his mo­tion for a new trial, Sawyer noted that pros­e­cu­tors are re­quired to give de­fen­dants all in­for­ma­tion that could raise ques­tions about their guilt or im­peach the cred­i­bil­ity of pros­e­cu­tion wit­nesses.

He also noted that Hall’s orig­i­nal sen­tence of five years, doled out af­ter she was con­victed in 2007, was thrown out when an ap­peals court found that pros­e­cu­tors had with­held ev­i­dence about the state’s only sen­tenc­ing wit­ness. Her orig­i­nal con­vic­tion was up­held.

On July 7, Lehm­berg said she was shar­ing in­for­ma­tion on the DNA lab is­sues with de­fense lawyers and would seek an out­side re­view of the DNA lab.

She told the Amer­i­can-States­man that day: “Any time an al­le­ga­tion is made con­cern­ing the in­tegrity of ev­i­dence in ei­ther a present case or a past case, we are re­quired by law to turn that ev­i­dence over to the de­fense and let them see it and use it as they see fit.”

The mo­tion for new trial will be con­sid­ered by state District Judge Wil­ford Flow­ers, who presided over Hall’s trial.

Laura Hall is serv­ing a 10-year sen­tence.

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