Judge rejects claims in salt-poisoning case

Relates to:
Date: 2012-06-01

Judge rejects claims in salt-poisoning case
By John MacCormack
Updated 11:50 p.m., Friday, June 1, 2012

A state judge has rejected claims by Hannah Overton that she was wrongly convicted of capital murder in 2007 because prosecutors withheld exculpatory evidence, her lawyers were ineffective, and important evidence discovered after trial proves her innocence.

Overton, 35, is serving life without parole in the 2006 death by salt poisoning of Andrew Burd, a 4-year-old foster child who became fatally ill while in her care.

The peculiar case has drawn national attention and become a cause célèbre among those who believe in Overton's claims of innocence. The Corpus Christi woman is serving a life sentence, in part, because she declined to consider pleading guilty to a lesser offense or have the jury consider a lesser offense.

Her case is before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which had ordered trial Judge Jose Longoria to hold a fact-finding hearing on the issues presented by Overton in her writ of habeas corpus.

In April, Longoria heard a week's worth of sometimes contentious testimony in Corpus Christi on the matters raised in the appeal. Overton, a deeply religious mother of five other children, was present but did not testify.

The most compelling witness for the defense was Dr. Michael Moritz, a recognized expert on salt poisoning. He testified that it was far more likely that Andrew, a child with eating and behavioral disorders, had eaten the salt himself rather than Overton forcing him to consume it.

“What we are seeing in this case does not fit any cases of intentional salt poisoning in the literature,” he said during the hearing.
But in a 14-page report to the court that became public late Thursday, Longoria rejected each of Overton's claims, and noted Moritz's opinions were known to the defense lawyers at the time of the trial but they chose not to call him as a witness.

Longoria found that Overton's lawyers had given her good representation at trial, “newly discovered” evidence presented at the hearing was known at the time of the trial, and the state did not hide important evidence.

“Based on the above findings of fact and conclusions of law of grounds 1-15, this Court could only recommend denying the relief requested,” Longoria wrote in his conclusion, while noting that other legal issues raised in the writ can only be addressed by the appeals court.

Cynthia Orr, who represents Overton, said Friday she will file objections to Longoria's findings with the Texas Court of Criminals Appeals. If that fails, she has said she will seek relief in federal court or a pardon from Gov. Rick Perry.

“I was certainly hoping he would not reject everything we heard at the hearings. There was a lot of credible testimony,” said Doug Hoffman, the assistant pastor at Overton's church, Calvary Chapel of the Coastlines.

“We're not totally surprised. That's why we're real glad it's going to be decided at the Court of Criminal Appeals,” he added.



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