Hall seeks new trial, again
Lawyers say details of DnA lab troubles were withheld
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.