Family Fights to Overturn Mom's Salt Poisoning Conviction
Andrew Burd, 4, Died From Salt Poisoning in 2006; Appeal Denied for Mom Accused of Murder
By JUJU CHANG and SHANA DRUCKERMAN
CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas, Feb. 18, 2010—
It's been two years since Larry Overton heard a Texas jury convict his wife, Hannah, of capital murder in the bizarre salt poisoning death of 4-year-old Andrew Burd, a child the couple was trying to adopt.
Raising their remaining five children in Hannah's absence has been challenging, but Overton says he'll continue to fight until his wife's conviction is overturned.
Last October, three justices in Texas' 13th Court of Appeals denied Hannah Overton's latest appeal, affirming a ruling made by the trial court.
Hannah Overton, 32, is currently serving a life sentence in a Texas prison.
In its decision, the court concluded that "a rational jury could have found beyond a reasonable doubt that Overton intentionally caused A.B.'s [Andrew Burd's] death by either of the theories alleged by the state, and that Overton was aware that her conduct of failing to provide or seek medical care was reasonably certain to cause A.B.'s death. Therefore, we conclude that the evidence was legally sufficient to support a finding that Overton either intentionally or knowingly caused A.B.'s death."
When 4-year-old Andrew Burd arrived at a hospital in critical condition in the fall of 2006, doctors didn't have a clue what was wrong with him. Blood tests soon revealed that he had salt poisoning, or hypernatremia. Andrew's levels were off the charts -- almost double the norm and among the highest ever recorded.
Doctors turned to Hannah Overton, then a 29-year-old pregnant mother of four, who was in the process of adopting Andrew. She told them Andrew had thrown a fit that afternoon after he'd been fed a full lunch. Instead of giving him more food, she said she put a few dashes of creole seasoning in a sippy cup of water.
But that didn't calm him, she said, and a few moments later he fell to the floor, vomited and complained of being cold. Overton said she suspected the flu, but after an hour and a half, Andrew's condition failed to improve. That's when she and her husband, Larry, took Andrew to the hospital.
The Overtons' story aroused the suspicions of doctors and investigators. The next day Andrew died and the devout Christian couple, who had no criminal history, became murder suspects. As the investigation continued, authorities developed a theory that Andrew's death was an intentional poisoning.
"We were just waiting for someone to look at it and say, 'This is just an accident,'" Larry Overton told "20/20." "Instead, we were arrested."
To investigators, Andrew's sudden and bizarre death was no accident. Within days, the authorities had begun weaving a sinister tale of murder, theorizing that Hannah Overton had become overwhelmed with the arrival of a foster child.
The arrest warrants painted the Overton home as a house of horrors, where Andrew was monitored by a camera and was punished with spicy seasoning. Detectives even used the Overtons' children to build a case against them, saying unusual forms of punishment had been previously used.
"This case boils down to a woman who, basically, tortured a child," said prosecutor Sandra Eastwood, "becoming so enraged she forced him to have 23 teaspoons of hot pepper and then watching him die in agony."
A grand jury returned an indictment on capital murder. In the state of Texas, if a child younger than 6 dies at the hands of another person, it's considered a capital case. The charge carries a minimum life sentence.
Charged With Capital Murder: Rush to Judgment?
The Overtons' church community saw the accusations against Hannah and Larry as ludicrous and rallied around the couple, raising nearly $700,000 for their defense.
"What they came up with and what really happened were completely different things," said the Rev. Rod Carver.
"It's so bizarre," Noreen Carver, Rod Carver's wife, said, "because [Hannah Overton's] really the last person you would think would be charged with this type of crime."
The Overtons and their supporters claimed there was a rush to judgment -- that the authorities had never considered alternate theories. The Overtons said that in the four months Andrew had lived with them, he had exhibited excessive tantrums and obsessive eating.
Hannah Overton said she started noticing that Andrew was hoarding food, stealing off the other children's plates and throwing tantrums after mealtime was over. At times, they said, they caught him trying to eat things that weren't even edible.
"Anything that he found, he would try and put in his mouth. He would also eat the cat food, the dog food, out of the trash can," Hannah Overton told "20/20."
The Overtons believe this unexplained behavior might have been linked to Andrew's death.
"Something was wrong with Andrew. I don't know exactly how or what happened to him," Hannah Overton said. "Something caused his sodium levels to rise, and it wasn't me."
While Hannah and Larry Overton awaited separate trials, Hannah Overton gave birth to a baby girl named Emma. Child welfare services placed all five Overton children with loved ones, allowing the couple only supervised visits.
Medical Mystery or Murder?
From day one of Hannah Overton's trial in August 2007, the prosecution portrayed her as a mother who had lost control. Frustrated with a naughty child, prosecutors said, she tried to punish him with seasoning mixed in water and then neglected to get him medical attention, knowing that he was dying.
Detectives questioned why Hannah Overton hadn't called 911, instead driving Andrew to the hospital. One doctor calculated that it would take at least 23 teaspoons of creole seasoning (equivalent to 7 teaspoons of salt) to get Andrew's sodium level as high as it was when he arrived at the hospital.
Medical staff members from the hospital also took the stand, testifying that they noticed bruising and scratching on the child's body when he arrived at the hospital. Prosecutors speculated these marks could be signs of abuse, or a struggle.
"Could it be that you held his nose, held his neck and made him drink this horrible concoction?" prosecutor Sandra Eastwood asked at trial.
"Absolutely not," Hannah Overton testified.
The prosecution also countered claims by the Overtons about Andrew's strange behavior. Witnesses, including Andrew's former foster mother Sharon Hamil, took the stand and told jurors the boy seemed perfectly healthy and never exhibited odd or excessive eating.
Hamil said the same in an interview with "20/20" after the trial: "He didn't ever seem like he was not being fulfilled with his meals. He seemed to be full when he would leave the table."
But Hamil later added, "He was always ready for a snack. ... He liked to eat and he liked, he loved pizza. He loved french fries. He could eat five slices of pizza. I mean, he could out-eat just about anybody else. And if there were five slices of pizza there and nobody else was eating them and he wanted them and I already knew he could handle it, why not let him have it? You know?"
The defense presented the jury with a medical mystery. They speculated Andrew might have had pica, an eating disorder characterized by an obsessive appetite. Witnesses outside the home had seen Andrew's bizarre habits too.
Hannah Overton told jurors that she thought the behavior was unusual but had learned in adoption classes that children in foster care often exhibited issues with food.
When the problems escalated, she alerted Andrew's adoption agency. During the visit to the home, the caseworker mentioned pica as a possible explanation.
Hannah said it was just a few days later that Andrew got sick and eventually died. She said she believes he may have gotten into something that morning when she wasn't watching that caused his sodium levels to rise.
Hannah insists the creole seasoning mixed with water wasn't to punish -- it was to soothe Andrew's insatiable appetite.
"My thought was that I would calm him down, appease him, give him like a broth, without giving him a tummyache from eating more food," Hannah told "20/20."
When asked why she didn't get him help sooner, Hannah said, "We didn't know that there was anything major going on. We didn't realize how sick he was. & If we had known that there was something more going on, we would have rushed to the hospital."
But Hannah Overton was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to life in prison in September 2007.
"I just kind of broke down," Larry Overton said. "And I just stared out a window for ... I don't know ... probably about an hour."
Jurors and Doctors Speak Out
To find Hannah guilty, jurors had to believe either of two scenarios -- that Hannah force-fed Andrew Burd salt knowing it would kill him or that she neglected to get medical help fast enough knowing that that would kill him.
All 12 jurors agreed with the second scenario, and "20/20" spoke to two of them.
"I don't believe it was her intention to, to kill him," said juror Dora Santos. "I just feel that if Andrew would have gotten help sooner he would probably be alive today."
"I mean, she killed him because she didn't seek medical help," said juror Norma Bejarano.
But when asked if Hannah Overton intentionally withheld medical attention from Andrew in order to kill the child, Santos replied, "That's something we'll never know."
Two doctors, both experts in the case -- one for the prosecution, the other for the defense -- believe Hannah Overton was wrongly convicted, and they spoke on camera for the first time to "20/20."
Dr. Edgar Cortes, the same pediatrician who treated Andrew at the emergency room and later consulted for the prosecution, said he always believed Andrew's death was accidental. Cortes is not being paid by the Overton defense team.
"I was stunned when I heard that [Hannah] had been given capital murder. I was just at a loss for words," Cortes said.
Cortes disagrees with the prosecution's portrayal of Andrew as perfectly healthy -- he said he saw speech and developmental problems back in 2005.
"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 said. "And I think that testimony might have given the jury an understanding that perhaps he was not a totally normal child."
But neither the defense nor the jury ever heard Cortes' opinions, which are the cornerstone of Hannah's appeal.
Prosecutor Sandra Eastwood said she doesn't recall Cortes expressing doubts about Hannah's intent.
"Sounds very disingenuous," Cortes told "20/20," "I was very clear from day one and very forceful as to my opinions."
Overton's appeal alleged that the state withheld Cortes' opinion from the defense. But in the appellate decision the court said, "Because there is conflicting evidence regarding whether the state knew of the alleged exculpatory evidence, we cannot conclude that the information was in fact known to the state or that the state was required to produce the unknown information."
The court added that even if Cortes had expressed his doubts to the prosecution, the state "has no duty to disclose inadmissible evidence." And that "Texas courts have repeatedly excluded expert testimony regarding a defendant's state of mind or intent at the time of the offense because it is speculative and unreliable."
Yet, in an earlier section of the decision, the court points to another prosecution expert, Dr. Alexandre Rotta, who testified that he believed Andrew was given the creole seasoning and water mixture after he had a temper tantrum "probably to punish his behavior."
In a 2008 interview with "20/20," prosecutor Eastwood stood by her case. "I feel very confident that I did the right thing in presenting the evidence and having her convicted," she said. She also remains convinced that Hannah Overton knew or should have known that withholding medical treatment would kill Andrew.
"I think she was angry, enraged, with wanting to punish him and hurt him and then realized, 'Oh my gosh, I've really hurt him.'"
Dr. Michael Moritz, a leading expert on salt poisoning at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, said, "I don't think there was any evidence at all that she did this."
Hannah's defense team hired Moritz but never put him on the stand, believing his testimony would be repetitive. Moritz believes he knows what happened to Andrew.
"I think he 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." Moritz has written extensively about salt poisoning and its connection to pica.
"When I pulled all the cases of salt poisoning, they all fit the same profile," he said. "Children within that age group of 2 to 6 years of age, in foster care from abusive homes but with behavioral problems, who had history of pica, who by all accounts appeared to have voluntary ingested large amounts of sodium."
For his part, Moritz doesn't believe Hannah Overton knew Andrew was dying.
"I think most people would never suspect salt poisoning, since it's something very few pediatricians or emergency rooms in the country have ever encountered," he said.
What's Next for the Overton Family?
Since Hannah Overton's trial concluded, her husband says he's tried to take things day by day.
"Initially, when my wife was incarcerated, they told me two years and I was, like, there's just no way. I don't know how I'll make two years," Overton told "20/20." "And really, the only way that I've made it and that the kids have made it, we rely on the Lord to get us through one day at a time."
Once a month, he packs his children into the family van and heads north. It's a 300-mile drive, but no one complains, because for two hours, they'll get to visit their mom in prison. Her appellate attorney, Cynthia Orr, believes that one day Hannah's case will be overturned and she'll be reunited with her family.
"I'm hopeful that eventually, when we get to a court that can take a good neutral look at this case, that we'll see Hannah vindicated," Orr said.
On the most recent decision in Hannah's case, Orr added, "This case had become so politicized and, as you know, our judges are elected in Texas and it would have been tough for them to overturn this case and face their electorate."
Still, Hannah Overton says she doesn't regret trying to adopt Andrew.
"I wouldn't take that away," she said. "He had brothers and sisters and a mommy and daddy, what he called his forever family, because we had to go through a lot of pain since then. It's not fair to him. Or to us."
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