Crime: The mysterious death of a foster child puts mother seeking to adopt him in jail
CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas— As newlyweds in 1997, neither Hannah Overton nor her husband Larry wanted to move back to this port city. Both had grown up here, but Hannah wanted to do missionary work abroad and Larry remembered as a kid how its churches were disunited. Yet they thought God wanted them back—perhaps to unify the city, though they couldn't say how. Disobeying God, they agreed, was worse than living in Corpus Christi. They moved into a house on the south end of town that Larry remodeled. They started a family that now includes five children born to them.
It's a family Hannah Overton hasn't seen much of lately. Last month, she became No. 01478117 in Gatesville Women's Prison, serving a life sentence for a crime she says she's innocent of—and her conviction has further divided the community she hoped to unite. Ironically, family is where her troubles started: She had always wanted a big one. In June 2006 the Overtons decided to adopt 4-year-old Andrew Burd. But on Oct. 3, before the process was complete, Andrew died suddenly of salt intoxication. Days later, Hannah Overton faced capital murder charges.
At her trial in August 2007—the trial for Larry, charged with injury to a child, had two postponements and is now rescheduled for next month—prosecutors told the jury that she force-fed Andrew a "slurry" of Zatarain's seasoning that caused lethal salt poisoning. She said she gave him maybe a spoonful dissolved in water to satiate his voracious appetite. She said he got cold and vomited later, but she didn't know he needed to go to the hospital. Neither, initially, did hospital staff: Unaware that Andrew was dying of too much salt, staff gave him saline intravenously.
Overton attorneys pointed to Andrew's erratic behavior: He chronically overate, sometimes from the trashcan, and vomited often; he could have gotten into the Zatarain's or another salty food on his own. An expert witness testified that it would have taken up to 23 tablespoons of Zatarain's consumed in a period of no more than 15 minutes to reach the sodium levels one doctor said were the "highest ever recorded."
Jurors said they didn't think Hannah Overton meant to kill Andrew. They found her guilty of his death by "failure to act." But the prosecution didn't include any lesser charges, and since Andrew was under 6, state law applied to this case required she get life without parole or nothing.
Jurors felt hamstrung. By law, capital murder must be purposeful. Jurors thought Hannah was guilty of not taking Andrew to the hospital quickly enough; defense attorneys said this wasn't purposeful. They asked the judge to throw out the verdict, arguing if jurors rejected that Hannah intended to kill Andrew purposefully by force-feeding him, then it made no sense to say that her failure to act later on was intentional.
The autopsy should have thrown light on Andrew's condition, but court testimony showed that the medical examiner, Ray Fernandez, never examined the contents of Andrew's stomach. Fernandez did check sodium levels in Andrew's body, but added that there appeared to be blunt-force head trauma. And yet, none of the doctors at the two hospitals and one clinic Andrew visited reported signs of head trauma, and Fernandez only found subarachnoid bleeding, not superficial marks. A defense expert argued Andrew appeared to have head trauma because high sodium levels kept blood from coagulating and caused hemorrhaging, which would look like head trauma.
Part of the prosecution's strategy was to use Hannah Overton's Christian practices against her. Jurors saw video of her praying in the police interrogation room. "This is not a woman suffering," prosecutor Sandra Eastwood told them. "This is a woman who is trying to get out of trouble." A firefighter testified that Overton didn't seem upset enough.
Since there was no evidence to prove the force-feeding of Andrew, much of the trial focused on what happened afterward. Andrew was sick for an hour and a half before Overton took him to the hospital. She never called 911. Prosecutors emphasized that she had been a licensed vocational nurse. And yet, the doctors themselves were so unsure of what was wrong with Andrew that they put him on a saline IV, probably accelerating his death.
Media coverage made Overton a household name and cleaved the community. Trial stories posted on The Corpus Christi Caller-Times' site drummed up 500 comments within days. "Hannahites"—the Old Testament--style epithet some gave her supporters—adorned their cars with "Free Hannah" bumper stickers. Friends from her church, Calvary Chapel of the Coastlands, sang praise songs outside the county jail on Tuesday and Saturday nights. The pastor there, Rod Carver, found himself in the unenviable position of being the Overtons' de facto spokesman.
Carver contends that misinformation helped turn the public against the Overtons. Some of it took months to correct, like claims that Andrew's mosquito bites, which the Overtons' friends say he picked, were cigarette burns. KORO-TV, Univision's affiliate, reported that Carver urged congregants to force-feed children spices as punishment. He calls this ridiculous. "Hannah has faced bias everywhere," Carver says. "Is it criminal negligence to not immediately rush a sick child to the hospital? If so, thousands of parents are in danger."
What Carver considers myriad conflicts of interest also frustrate him. The judge threw out nearly 30 additional charges brought by Child Protective Services. The agency stood to benefit from an evil Overtons scenario that trivialized its own failures to provide a well-child evaluation and state-mandated Medicaid for Andrew. After the Overtons' arrest, it was revealed that the detective who investigated their case is married to a local CPS supervisor.
In the courtroom, Overton's attorneys claimed prosecutors suppressed evidence showing her innocence. Called a "Brady violation," this same breach helped bring down North Carolina district attorney Michael Nifong in the Duke lacrosse case. The defense claims that the prosecution didn't reveal the testimony of Edgar Cortes, a pediatrician who examined Andrew, and badgered him not to speak to the defense team. The defense team wasn't aware that Cortes had told prosecutors months before the trial that he believed Hannah had no intention of killing Andrew.
After the trial, a furious Cortes called the Overton attorneys and drafted an affidavit that read: "Hannah Overton had no intent to kill Andrew Burd." He was familiar with Andrew's medical history; a previous foster parent brought him to Cortes as well. Cortes said most salt intoxication deaths occur in the hospital. He pointed to the ineffectiveness of Zatarain's as a poison; McCormick, which makes Zatarain's, refuses to disclose its ingredients, calling them a "trade secret." He wondered: Why would a murderer use a spice with unknown contents? Why not just use salt?
Not persuaded, the judge refused to grant a retrial. The case has passed to the 13th Circuit Court of Appeals. One less-nefarious version of events is that a loving mother of five, hands full from adopting a child with behavioral problems, may have resorted to unwise punishment. It went awry, and she panicked. Overtons' supporters reject this, praising even Hannah's refusal to plea bargain as godly.
A citywide group of pastors led by John Otis, a local Presbyterian minister, is now trying to convince the state to intercede. Otis drafted a letter for hand-delivery to Gov. Rick Perry asking him to grant her clemency. At a pastors' meeting last month he hoped for a dozen signatories to the letter, but nearly doubled that with 21.
These meetings of pastors have now become regular. Carver and Otis, previously unacquainted, now sit with Baptist, black, and Hispanic colleagues. "This thing has exposed the fairly impotent Christian influence on power structures in our city," says Jack Carter, pastor at Church of the King. "I'm hoping this will galvanize us to take our place better than we have in the past."
Hannah's return may have split the city apart, but for the Christians in Corpus Christi—Latin for the "body of Christ"—it has become a different story.