Prayer provides hope after murder conviction
Appeals court hearing case over 4-year-old's death from salt poisoning
Supporters of Hannah Overton, the Texas mother who they say was wrongfully convicted of capital murder and given a life prison term for the rare salt poisoning death of a 4-year-old foster child, have this advice for others concerned about the case: Keep praying.
But the supporters also contend the correct resolution could be reached if the 13th District Appeals Court in Corpus Christi, Texas, overturns her conviction in an ruling that could be released at any time.
As WND reported, Overton was given the life term after being convicted of allegations brought by Child Protective Service workers, police officers and prosecutors – who had a multitude of interrelationships, including marriage – that she forced the 4-year-old to drink Zatarain's Cajun Seasoning.
Hannah's husband, Larry, later took a plea bargain that resulted in probation so that the couple's five other children would not be left with both parents in jail while her case was appealed.
But the case, which also has been highlighted on ABC's "20/20" television program, was decided without key evidence, according to supporter Doug Hoffman. He spoke with WND about the situation, explaining how members of the Overtons' church, which also raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for her legal fees, are taking turns helping with the children, while Hannah leads Bible studies and teaches courses in a state prison 300 miles away from her family.
One of the key pieces of evidence excluded from the trial was testimony from Dr. Edgar Cortes, the pediatrician who had seen the child, Andrew Burd, multiple times. Cortes also was the physician who treated Andrew when the Overton's realized something was wrong and rushed him to the hospital.
"I was stunned when I heard that [Hannah] had been given capital murder," he told "20/20." "I was just at a loss for words."
The ABC program asked Cortes how he could react that way after prosecutors convinced jurors that Hannah Overton was a stressed mother who knowingly gave the child a salty seasoning and then waited too long to take him to the hospital.
"The only physician that treated Andy while he was alive, and who was aware of the other neurological problems that he had, was me," Cortes told the program. "And I think that testimony might have given the jury an understanding that perhaps he was not a totally normal child."
Prosecutor Sandra Eastwood reportedly doesn't recall Cortes' concerns, but the doctor is skeptical.
"Sounds very disingenuous," Cortes told "20/20." "I was very clear from day one and very forceful as to my opinions."
According to the FreeHannah.com website, organized by supporters, Andrew was born to a mother who admitted abusing meth, coke, marijuana, crank, acid and alcohol while pregnant.
CPS files on the boy's health were not complete, and Hannah Overton had noticed health and behavioral issues that she had discussed with the adoption agency.
"Andrew also fit the classic mold of a child suffering Emotional Deficit Syndrome, also known as Reactive Attachment Disorder. This is becoming better known among foster children. He fit all of the 10 signs of this disorder perfectly," the website said.
One of the manifestations of the boy's problems was hoarding food and demanding to be fed immediately after a meal, the website says. Hannah Overton sought ways to modify the behavior, first trying a dose of lemon on food in the hope he would dislike it. He loved it. Then she tried the Cajun seasoning.
"She gave one or two small shakes onto the soup, he wanted more and started to get upset again and was grabbing at the container in her hand spilling it in the kitchen . … She thought if he wanted the flavor, she could give him a bit of the flavor in water instead of giving him more food. She put two shakes into a tumbler and then poured that into a small sippy cup, put on the top and let him drink that," the supporters reported.
The boy also may have eaten salty food about which the Overtons were unaware. The result was a rare salt overdose condition that initially appeared to the Overtons to be flu. When he didn't improve, they took him to the hospital. He died the next day.
Nueces County District Attorney Carlos Valdez told the San Antonio Express-News the case was simple.
"The child had a substance in his body," he said. "He was either killed or he accidentally committed suicide, and I don't think the child did that."
In recorded statements early in the case, the DA accused Overton of intentionally killing Andrew but later changed his position.
"I think she put it on something he liked to eat, with the knowledge it would harm him, and with the intent to punish him,” he told the newspaper. "She knew how to punish him. I think the evidence shows she just overdid it."
However, the "20/20" report documented that the emergency room doctors were stymied and turned to Overton for help. She said Andrew had thrown a fit after lunch, but instead of giving him more food, she put a few dashes of seasoning in a sippy cup of water and gave it to him.
The devout Christian couple had no criminal history, but to investigators, CPS workers and prosecutors the case was clear, and the arrest warrants painted the Overton home as a house of horrors.
Eastwood later accused Hannah of "torture."
But jurors told the television program of their doubts.
"I don't believe it was her intention to, to kill him," said juror Dora Santos.
Cortes added his doubts, but his testimony was never heard by jurors, because he was summoned by the prosecution, which then decided against having him testify.
Defense attorneys hired Dr. Michael Moritz, a leading expert on salt poisoning who works in Pittsburgh. He was not put on the stand because of circumstances that developed during the trial.
The doctor told "20/20" he believed the boy was "in one of his feeding binges, he was having a tantrum, and he was unsupervised for a brief period of time, and I believe that he ingested a large amount of salt."
According to the San Antonio newspaper, a neighbor, Kathi Haller, was visited by police right after the death. The officer "flat-out accused Hannah of killing Andrew," she said.
"I was flabbergasted. I know Hannah, and I knew this hadn't occurred. She could never have done this. She had a back injury," she said. "And it didn’t make sense. He was still a foster child and they hadn't officially adopted him. If she was looking for a way out, she could have sent him back."
But the officer, whose wife was a supervisor for CPS, brushed off her protests, Haller said.
Huffman told WND Larry Overton drives 12 hours every weekend to visit his wife, and church members are helping the family.
"Our expectation at this level is that the judges would see the injustice done and reverse the findings by the jury," he said.
The support team for Hannah also has become active in the judicial system, setting up a campaign to teach jurors about their rights and responsibilities.
"In this case, we don't think the jurors knew what the real evidence was," he said.
The jurors said Overton did not act quickly enough, finding her guilty of murder "by omission."
The wording over the judicial charge, however, drew concern from at least one juror.
Margaret Warfield, a school teacher, later filed an affidavit, according to the Express-News, that, "It seemed to me, based on the wording of the charge, that we had no choice but to find her guilty of capital murder ... I do not believe that Mrs. Overton intended to kill Andrew. I do not believe that Mrs. Overton knew that her actions (or lack thereof) would kill Andrew Burd."
Carver has told his congregation, "We know Hannah. We know the truth. We know the whole story. It's still a spiritual battle. We still absolutely believe she will be set free. … And ultimately the answer is prayer."