Hannah and Andrew (Detailed account from the Overton perspective)
Hannah and Andrew
In October 2006 a four-year-old from Corpus Christi named Andrew Burd died mysteriously of salt poisoning. His foster mother, Hannah Overton, was charged with capital murder, vilified from all quarters, and sent to prison for life. But was this churchgoing young woman a vicious child killer? Or had the tragedy claimed its second victim?
by Pamela Colloff
WHAT LITTLE IS KNOWN ABOUT ANDREW Burd’s early life is contained in a slim Child Protective Services case file that chronicles the boy’s descent into the child welfare system. His mother was just sixteen, the file shows, when she gave birth to him in Corpus Christi on July 28, 2002. She would later admit, according to one report, “to using alcohol, methamphetamines, cocaine and crack cocaine, LSD, marijuana, cigarettes, and taking prescription Xanax.” His father was seventeen and worked for a traveling carnival. CPS launched its initial investigation into Andrew’s well-being shortly after his first birthday, when his mother took him to a local hospital with a broken arm. Four subsequent investigations were triggered by reports of abuse or neglect, including one allegation that both his mother and maternal grandmother were incapable of properly caring for him because they used methamphetamines. When Andrew was two-and-a-half years old, CPS determined that he was in “immediate danger,” according to an affidavit, and he was put in foster care. His mother’s and father’s parental rights were terminated soon after he turned three.
If not for a Corpus Christi couple named Larry and Hannah Overton, Andrew might have lingered in state custody, shuffled from one foster home to another. The Overtons already had four children, and Larry’s income—he installed landscape lighting—was barely enough to make ends meet. But as devoted Christians, their desire to adopt a foster child was rooted in faith more than in practicality. Both Larry and Hannah had done missionary work, and as a teenager, Hannah had spent holidays volunteering at an orphanage across the border, in Reynosa, where she had fed, bathed, and ministered to kids who had been living on the streets. The experience had affected her deeply, and she told Larry that she was willing to adopt a child with disabilities or an older child who had been unable to find a permanent home. As a former private-duty nurse, Hannah felt equipped to handle the challenges of a foster child; she had spent several years caring for special-needs children, some of whom were profoundly disabled. In 2005 the Overtons began to pursue the idea seriously. They considered adopting a nine-year-old girl who was deaf, but when, after much prayer and deliberation, they decided to move forward with the adoption, they learned that the girl had been placed with another family.
Not long afterward, Larry and Hannah heard about Andrew at their church, Calvary Chapel of the Coastlands, which Andrew’s foster mother also attended. The nondenominational church, on the south side of Corpus Christi, drew many young evangelicals with its emphasis on a verse-by-verse understanding of the Bible, and Larry and Hannah were well-regarded members. Larry taught Sunday school, Hannah led a Bible study, and their children, whom Hannah homeschooled, attended youth group and socialized with other members’ kids. Andrew accompanied his foster mother to services every Sunday, and with his thatch of blond hair and beaming grin, he was hard to miss. He had a speech delay and spoke haltingly, sometimes with a stutter, but every week, when his Sunday school classmates went around in a circle to say their prayer requests, he made the same wish aloud: that he would be adopted. The Overtons’ daughters, four-year-old Isabel and three-year-old Ally, reported back to their parents that the new boy in their class needed a family. “Can Andrew be our brother?” the girls pleaded.
A church elder, who was himself an adoptive parent, invited the Overtons to dinner one night and encouraged them to consider bringing Andrew into their home. Andrew’s foster mother, who had provided refuge to roughly three hundred children over three decades, was also supportive. But others at Calvary Chapel expressed their concern. The church’s pastor, Rod Carver, and his wife, Noreen, had initially considered taking in Andrew but ultimately decided he was more than they could handle. More outspoken was Andrew’s Sunday school teacher, who sat Hannah and Larry down and told them that he was a troubled kid. He hoarded food and sometimes ate from the trash, she warned, and he threw intense temper tantrums, which could be tamed only by holding and rocking him. On several occasions his fits had grown so extreme that she had resorted to asking a male parishioner to physically remove him from the classroom until he could regain self-control. “Think of your other children,” she urged the couple.
Yet if anyone was up to the task, most everyone agreed, it was the Overtons, and Hannah in particular. She was unflappable and unfailingly patient with children. Hannah shrugged off the teacher’s warnings, certain that Andrew would improve once he had the stability of a permanent home. “All he needs is lots of love and attention,” she told Larry.
The Overtons moved forward with the adoption process, and in the spring of 2006, they received word that Andrew would be coming to live with them for a six-month trial period before the adoption was finalized. In anticipation of his arrival, Larry built a three-tiered bunk bed for Andrew and the two Overton boys: Isaac, who was seven years old, and Sebastian, who was two. Larry and Hannah knew that Andrew loved Spider-Man, so they made sure to have all manner of Spider-Man-themed necessities for him: sheets, pajamas, a toothbrush, a towel, a swimsuit, and even a plate embossed with the superhero’s image.
Andrew spent his first night at the Overtons’ modest ranch-style house on Mother’s Day, when he was two months shy of his fourth birthday, and he seemed to quickly grow attached to his new family. He called Hannah and Larry “Mommy” and “Daddy,” and he followed Larry everywhere he went, often stepping on Larry’s heels as he trailed after him. At Sunday school, he became more expressive, stringing words into sentences and holding hands with his new sister Ally. “The Overtons are nurturing, loving, patient, and very family-oriented,” an adoption supervisor noted in her paperwork. “Andrew seems very happy in this home.”
Four months later, on October 2, 2006, Andrew fell suddenly and acutely ill while he was alone with Hannah. Larry hurried home to help, but Andrew, who had been vomiting, only grew worse. The Overtons rushed him to a nearby urgent care clinic after his breathing became labored and he stopped responding to their questions, but by the time they arrived, he had fallen unconscious. The following evening, Andrew was dead. The cause of death was determined to be salt poisoning, an extremely rare occurrence that, in children, results from either a child inadvertently ingesting too much salt or a caretaker deliberately forcing the child to do so. People who knew the Overtons were certain that Andrew’s bewildering death was accidental. But law enforcement and emergency medical personnel who treated Andrew thought otherwise. The following week, Hannah—who had no history with CPS and no previous arrests, and had never had so much as a parking ticket—was charged with capital murder.
BEFORE HANNAH GOT MARRIED, WHEN SHE was still Hannah Saenz, she knew she wanted a large family—“at least six kids,” she used to tell people. Standing just five feet tall, with wide-set brown eyes, a girlish laugh, and a warm, easy manner, Hannah was almost childlike herself. The daughter of a pastor and a homemaker, she had grown up longing for the companionship and boisterous energy of the big, churchgoing families she saw around her. She had only one sibling, a brother who was seven years her junior, and a father who was largely absent from her life.
Hannah’s father was the Reverend Bennie Saenz, an evangelical preacher in Corpus Christi whose fall from grace profoundly altered the course of her childhood. Hannah was seven when Saenz was arrested in 1984 and charged with a singularly horrific crime: the bludgeoning death of a sixteen-year-old girl whose nude body was discovered at the water’s edge on Padre Island. Until his arrest, Saenz had led a seemingly normal life: in addition to leading his nondenominational congregation, he worked as an office-machine mechanic while his wife, Lane, stayed home with their two children. He delivered sermons to a small but devoted following that met every Sunday, and during services he also played guitar. (Larry’s parents, who were friends of the Saenzes’, were parishioners.) But Saenz’s account of his whereabouts on the evening of the murder did not jibe with the evidence, and blood that matched the victim’s type was discovered inside his van. After a week-long trial, he was convicted of murder and sentenced to 23 years in prison. The congregation quickly dissolved. Hannah understood little of what had taken place except that she, her mother, and her brother had to leave Corpus Christi behind.
Lane and her children moved to the East Texas town of Lindale, where a missionary organization, the Calvary Commission, allowed them to live in a modest apartment on its grounds free of charge. Lane earned her college degree and became an elementary school teacher, while Hannah played with, and later babysat, the children of missionaries who used the campus as a home base between trips abroad. “She looked after dozens of children, including my grandchildren, and in all the years she was here, I can’t recall one negative thing being said about her,” the commission’s founder, Joe Fauss, told me. “Kids loved her. She was always smiling, always laughing.” As a teenager, she was captivated by missionaries’ stories of serving in far-flung places, and she began going on group mission trips herself, once venturing as far as Romania. Every Easter and Christmas holiday was spent at the Reynosa orphanage, whose wards were primarily the unwanted children of prostitutes who worked the nearby red-light district. Though the kids were in poor health, Hannah was unreserved in her affection. She hugged them and let them climb onto her lap, often returning to Lindale with head lice. “Some people love stray animals,” remembered her mother, now remarried. “Hannah was always drawn to stray people.”
When she was fifteen, Hannah returned to Corpus Christi with her family to visit, and Larry, who had not seen her since they were kids, was immediately smitten. Hannah was less impressed, given that Larry—who, at sixteen, was an enthusiastic fan of Christian punk rock—was sporting a nose ring and a blue mohawk. Despite appearances, however, he was hardly a reprobate. A committed Christian, he had gone on mission trips with his family since he was a child, including a fourteen-month stint in Papua New Guinea and several treks across Mexico. He didn’t drink or smoke, and the bands he listened to sang about glorifying God. He struck up a correspondence with Hannah, but she did not warm to him until their paths crossed again at a year-long missionary training school outside Tyler, when she was nineteen and he was a more clean-cut twenty. Hannah liked the tall, serious-minded student who shared the same hopes she had of creating a life centered on children and Christian outreach. They wed a year later and moved to Corpus Christi. On their honeymoon, they stopped at the orphanage in Reynosa, where Hannah wanted Larry to meet some of the children she had told him so much about.
Before they started a family, Hannah worked as a private-duty nurse for disabled children, and her longest assignment—with a four-year-old named Michael Subialdea—became as absorbing to her as her time in Reynosa. Michael, who had been born prematurely, was severely impaired; he had cerebral palsy, was blind, and could not walk or talk. Rather than let him remain in his wheelchair most of the day, as previous caretakers had done, Hannah kept him moving; she took him into his family’s pool to stretch and used massage to loosen his contracted muscles. He felt at ease around her; his favorite thing to do was sit on her lap and rest his mouth on her cheek, and she gladly obliged. “She had a way with Michael that even my wife and I didn’t completely understand,” his father, Richard, told me. He recalled how Michael used to chew on his fingers, a chronic problem that left his skin bloody and raw. Richard and his wife had tried all sorts of tactics to deter him: redirecting his attention, putting gloves on him, even restraining his hands. Only Hannah had been able to break through. “When Michael put his fingers in his mouth, she would call his name softly—there was no anger in her voice—and he would smile and slowly slide his fingers out,” Richard said. “We were in awe.”
Hannah went into labor with her first child, Isaac, at the Subialdeas’ house, and though she had planned to come back to work after her son’s birth, she found the separation from him too wrenching. She left nursing behind, channeling her energy instead into raising the large family she had always wanted. “I’m a pretty easygoing guy, but I remember thinking, ‘Six kids?’ ” Larry told me. “Hannah was sure I would eventually come around. I figured, ‘Well, we’ve got to start with one, so let’s see how far we get.’ ” Isabel, and then Ally, followed. Each pregnancy felt extraordinarily fortunate; after Isaac, Hannah had suffered two miscarriages and been advised that she might not be able to have more children. But after the girls, the Overtons conceived their fourth child, Sebastian. Early in the pregnancy, Hannah and Larry were informed that the boy would likely have Down syndrome. They declined to do any further chromosomal testing and turned to prayer instead. “If he had Down’s, that was the blessing that God had chosen to give us,” Larry said. Not until Sebastian was born did doctors discover that his only impairment was a hole in his heart, which healed on its own.
Two years later, the Overtons learned that their adoption application had been approved and that Andrew would be joining their family. They also discovered that Hannah was pregnant again. Just as she had hoped, they would have six children. It was, Hannah and Larry would later remember, one of the happiest times in their lives.
AT FIRST, THE TRANSITION with Andrew went smoothly. He seemed to enjoy having brothers and sisters to play with, and the Overton kids—especially the girls, who doted on him—were enthralled by the new arrival. Although he hung back when his siblings embraced their parents in group hugs, Larry and Hannah learned that if they asked Andrew to join in, he would do so enthusiastically, throwing his arms around them. Whenever he got scared—and there was a long list of things that petrified him, from swimming to large crowds to the sound of balloons popping—the Overtons worked to help him overcome his fears, reassuring him that they loved him and that he was in safe surroundings. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” Hannah would remind him, quoting Philippians.
Andrew’s standard answer whenever he was asked to perform a simple task was “Sorry, I can’t,” but Hannah was heartened one day that summer when he deviated from the script. “Sorry, I—” he began, when she asked him to put on his shoes. Then he corrected himself. Reaching for his shoes, he announced, “I can do all things.” Larry remembered, “We felt like we were really making headway with him.”
Although the adoption agency that had worked with CPS to find Andrew a home had described him as “developmentally on target” except for his speech delay, Larry and Hannah observed otherwise. He acted more like a toddler than a preschooler, they noted; if he wanted an object, he pointed to it and grunted. At four, he spent most of his time playing with Sebastian, who was two, rather than Ally, who was his own age, and his motor skills lagged far behind those of his peers. He moved unsteadily, and he was so clumsy that Hannah had him wear a life jacket whenever he splashed around in their inflatable kiddie pool. Most striking to the Overtons, and to their neighbors and friends, was his preoccupation with eating. Regardless of how much food he consumed, he complained that he was hungry. If he was denied a second or third helping, he would routinely throw a tantrum or get down on his hands and knees to scavenge the floor for crumbs. Larry and Hannah caught him trying to eat cat food, crayons, toothpaste, glow sticks, tufts of carpeting—anything he could get his hands on. When they took him along on errands, they had to keep him from eating the old gum and cigarette butts he found on the ground.
Yet the Overtons were not too concerned. In the classes they had been required to take by CPS to become adoptive parents, they had been warned that foster children often hoarded food and were more likely to have eating disorders. And given that abuse and neglect during the first year of life can profoundly affect behavioral development, they were not surprised that Andrew was different. “We had been told to expect a lot of the things we were seeing with Andrew,” Larry told me. His foster mother had taken him to a pediatrician for an adoption screening shortly before he had come to live with them, and the checkup had raised no red flags. “We truly thought his obsession with food was a behavioral issue, not a medical one,” Larry said. “We thought that he would stop turning to food for comfort when he learned that he could trust us.” To try and curtail Andrew’s compulsive eating, they put him in time-outs, though to little effect. Other couples they knew who had adopted foster children assured them that their kids had outgrown similar eating issues, and the Overtons assumed that, with time, Andrew would outgrow his as well.
Andrew’s behavior worsened that September, after the family was involved in a car accident. The Overtons were returning from a visit to the obstetrician’s office, where they had brought the children to find out whether the baby they were expecting was a boy or a girl. The mood in the car was giddy; the kids were excitedly discussing the news that they would have a baby sister when Larry, distracted, ran a stop sign and collided with another car. The passenger side of their old Ford van was not equipped with an air bag, and Hannah, who had pulled down her seat belt so she could turn to talk to the kids, was jolted forward, her face hitting the dashboard. Afterward, she instinctively looked back to check on the children, not realizing that her face was covered in blood. In the midst of the chaos that followed, no one recognized how distressed Andrew was by the sight of Hannah’s bloodied face. Hannah and the girls, who complained of feeling achy, were taken to the hospital in an ambulance while Larry’s parents picked up the rest of the family and, after dropping Larry off at the hospital, took the boys to a nearby Whataburger. Throughout the meal, Andrew repeatedly asked, “Is my mom okay?” He also kept requesting more food.
Hannah, who was left with whiplash and a severely swollen jaw, spent the next several weeks immobilized by a neck brace, mostly confined to bed. Financially, the accident had come at a precarious time; Larry had recently purchased his boss’s landscape lighting business, and he needed to put in long hours just to make ends meet. Relatives, neighbors, and members of the Overtons’ church pitched in to look after the kids during Hannah’s recovery, but the revolving door of caregivers proved to be difficult for Andrew, who began acting out on a scale they had not seen before. He picked at mosquito bites on his body incessantly, prompting Larry to put socks on his hands; still, Andrew would not stop scratching and eventually developed a staph infection on his arm. His tantrums grew longer and more extreme, and he often banged his head against the floor. Sometimes he cried inconsolably for hours.
Overwhelmed, the Overtons sought guidance in prayer. Fellow church member Anita Miotti remembers their telling her and her husband, Rich, that they were struggling. “They said Andrew was going through a very difficult time,” she said. “They asked us, ‘Can you pray that we have discernment and wisdom in helping him through this?’ ”
Andrew’s preoccupation with eating intensified, and he began getting out of bed at night to forage for food in the kitchen. Hoping to show him that his behavior was self-destructive, Larry told Andrew one morning that he could have as much as he wanted for breakfast. “I knew it would probably make him sick, but I wanted him to understand why we were setting limits,” Larry explained. At Andrew’s request, he made a plate of sausage and more than a dozen eggs, all of which the boy eagerly devoured. Andrew continued eating until he threw up. Then he asked for more.
Perplexed, Larry installed a baby monitor equipped with a video camera in the boys’ room so that he and Hannah could observe if Andrew was wandering into the kitchen at night. It was while watching the monitor that Hannah saw him trying to eat part of his foam mattress and paint off the wall. She reported Andrew’s unusual eating habits to his adoption supervisor when she visited the Overton home on September 25. The supervisor suggested that Andrew might have an eating disorder called pica, which is characterized by a desire to consume things that have no nutritional value, and she recommended that he be evaluated by a specialist if his behavior continued.
That Sunday, October 1, Larry took the other kids to church while Hannah devoted some extra attention to Andrew. Before the family returned home, Andrew asked if he could have lunch, and Hannah told him that he needed to wait; Larry was bringing them something to eat, she explained, and he would be back in a few minutes. Andrew flew into a rage. He defecated on the floor of his bedroom, then smeared feces on the bed, the dresser, and the walls.
Larry attempted to restore order upon his return, putting Andrew’s soiled sheets in the garbage and hosing off the boy and his foam mattress in the backyard. While Larry tried to scrub down the bedroom, Andrew pulled his sheets out of the trash several times, despite repeated warnings not to do so. Losing his patience, Larry took the sheets to the family’s fire pit and burned them. “Not the brightest thing to do,” Larry conceded. “But I was frustrated. The sheets were filthy, and he was getting poop everywhere. I made sure that he saw that we had an identical set of Spider-Man sheets so he would calm down.”
That evening Larry laid a sleeping bag on top of Andrew’s plywood bed frame, where, he told the boy, he would have to spend the night while his mattress finished drying. The three oldest Overton children had gone to their aunt’s house to see their cousins, who were visiting from out of town, and Andrew grew increasingly agitated and restless, throwing a tantrum at three o’clock in the morning. “Before we ever tried to adopt, we had been warned that this was going to be difficult, that this was not going to be the Little Orphan Annie story,” Larry told me. “We were having a hard time, but we knew it was going to pass. We were in it for the long haul.”
LARRY LEFT FOR WORK THE following morning, and Hannah, who was still in considerable pain from the car accident, gave Andrew and Sebastian breakfast before bringing them into bed with her to watch cartoons. Exhausted from the previous night, she briefly dozed off, then awoke to discover that Andrew had slipped out of the room. She found him standing on a stool in the pantry, near the baking ingredients, having pulled something off the shelf. She could not recall later what, exactly, he had been holding in his hand.
According to Hannah, Andrew once again asked for an early lunch, and once again, when she told him that he would have to wait, he defecated and smeared feces across the floor. Hannah managed to clean him up, but when she reiterated that he would have to wait until lunchtime to eat, he defecated on the floor again. Finally she relented, heating up what she had on hand: leftover vegetable-beef soup flavored with Zatarain’s Creole Seasoning. Shortly after noon, Larry picked her and the boys up and took them to a McDonald’s drive-through, and then the chiropractor, before returning to work. (Andrew was told that he could not have any food at McDonald’s, since he had already eaten.) When Andrew complained of being hungry that afternoon, Hannah gave him more of the leftover soup. When she refused to give him a second helping, he threw a tantrum and shouted, “I hate you!” Finally, Hannah resorted to sprinkling some Zatarain’s into a sippy cup of water, hoping that the taste alone would appease him. After drinking a little, he threw another tantrum that continued unabated for twenty minutes.
Then, abruptly, Andrew grew quiet and stumbled to the floor. “Mommy, I’m cold,” he said, and threw up. Shortly afterward, at three-thirty, Hannah called Larry and asked him to come home since Andrew was vomiting and she needed his help. The boy’s symptoms that afternoon—vomiting, chills, and lethargy—initially suggested to the Overtons that he had a routine ailment, like a stomach bug. But as the afternoon wore on, his symptoms grew troubling; his breathing became congested, and he became less and less responsive. Just after five o’clock, the Overtons put him in their car and rushed him to a nearby urgent care clinic. A block away from the clinic, as they waited at a red light, Andrew stopped breathing. Frantic, Hannah began administering CPR in the backseat. At the clinic, she continued giving him mouth-to-mouth and chest compressions until paramedics took over, but the four-year-old lay motionless. He soon lapsed into a coma.
THE NEXT MORNING, CORPUS Christi police detective Michael Hess paid a visit to Kathi Haller, the Overtons’ next-door neighbor, who knew the family well. Like Hannah, Haller homeschooled her children, and the two mothers split teaching duties; the Haller children went to the Overton home for instruction for part of the day and vice versa. The families shared an unofficial open-door policy, and when Andrew had begun acting up the previous afternoon, Hannah had called Haller for help, asking if she could look after Sebastian for a little while. Then, as always, Hannah had been composed, despite the strain she was under. “We had known each other for ten years, and I don’t think I’d ever seen her mad,” Haller told me.
Hess, who investigated child abuse cases for the police force’s family violence unit, had a very different impression of Hannah. The detective had been alerted to Andrew’s grave condition when the boy was transported to a nearby hospital the previous afternoon and, as was protocol, had begun looking into the circumstances surrounding the boy’s unusual and rapid decline. Haller, who took notes documenting her conversation with Hess and later testified about it under oath, recalled the detective’s certainty that Hannah had tried to kill Andrew. According to Haller, he told her, “Look, she’s pregnant and she has all these kids, but it was just too much for her. So she had to find a way out.” (Hess did not respond to interview requests for this article but has previously denied Haller’s version of events.) Haller was stunned by the accusation. “I kept denying that Hannah could do such a thing,” she told me. “Hannah would never harm a child.” Even setting aside her loyalty to her friend, the detective’s theory made no sense to her. “Andrew’s adoption hadn’t been finalized,” Haller said. “If Hannah had been looking for a ‘way out,’ she would have called the adoption agency and told them that she and Larry couldn’t go through with it.” Hess was unmoved. Before he left, Haller recalled his saying, “You might want to prepare for the media.”
Hess’ suspicions had developed the previous evening during an interview with Hannah, who had consented to talk to him without an attorney present. The medical staff at Driscoll Children’s Hospital had determined that Andrew had nearly twice the normal level of sodium in his blood—a highly abnormal finding—as well as bleeding in the brain, and as Hess questioned her, he tried to ascertain what had happened. But Hannah, who was bewildered by Andrew’s condition, had no ready answers. Impatient to return to the boy’s bedside, she gave a hurried, disjointed account of the day that omitted critical details, such as how she had found Andrew in the pantry unattended, and she made only fleeting mention of his unusual eating habits. Hess became exasperated. “I don’t see what caused the trauma to the brain,” he said. “I don’t see what caused the high salt content. That’s what I’m trying to get you to tell me.” With no obvious explanations to consider, he focused his attention on Hannah. “Did you at any time strike him?” Hess asked. “Push him?” Throughout the interrogation, which spanned more than two hours, Hannah insisted that she had never harmed Andrew.
Hannah did describe how she and Larry had at first tried to treat the boy’s symptoms themselves, often volunteering more information than the detective had asked for. When Andrew started “breathing funny,” she told Hess, she had administered asthma medication with a nebulizer, hoping to open up his airways. And when he became “less responsive,” she had pulled out her old EMT books to assess what was wrong. Larry had also tried to rouse him by giving him a warm bath. “I wasn’t thinking, obviously, or I would have just taken him to the hospital,” Hannah told the detective. She had studied years earlier to be an EMT, she explained, and although she had never worked as a paramedic, she had felt confident in her training. “I was just trying to fix it—to do anything I could to fix my baby,” she said. When Andrew’s condition worsened, she and Larry had debated whether to call 911 or go to the nearby urgent care clinic, a concern because Andrew lacked health insurance. (CPS had not yet sent them his Social Security card, which they needed to get him insured.) She and Larry were under tremendous financial strain, she admitted, but she stressed that they had rushed for help as soon as they realized how critical Andrew’s condition was.
Hess remained skeptical of Hannah’s account. “It should be noted that during the entire conversation, Hannah Overton showed almost no emotion,” he later wrote in his police report. In the context of a criminal investigation, the calm that she had always exhibited in the midst of crisis was suddenly a liability—an indication, perhaps, that she was cold-blooded enough to have killed a child.
A pediatric critical care specialist who treated Andrew at Driscoll, Alexandre Rotta, grew equally troubled. EMS records show that the boy was admitted with no more than a bruised knee and sores on his right elbow, but during his hospitalization, other significant black-and-blue marks emerged—in particular, on his trunk and nose. EMTs and hospital staff had vigorously poked and prodded the boy as they attempted to revive him, first at the clinic, then in an ambulance, then at Christus Spohn Hospital, where he was initially taken, and finally at Driscoll, where he was transferred to the intensive care unit. CPR had also been performed for an extended period by Hannah and later by medical personnel, who had squeezed the boy’s nose and administered chest compressions for 35 minutes. But Rotta was alarmed by his overall appearance. “This was not a child that came into the office looking well, with a story of, you know, ‘He’s just a tomboy, and he falls and hits himself,’ ” Rotta would later testify. “This is a child that came in [to the emergency room] in cardiopulmonary arrest and was dying. So it is the context and the totality of the injuries that worried me. . . . I was convinced that we were in the presence of a crime.”
Within hours of Andrew’s arrival at the hospital, the Overtons’ home had been searched, and soon more facts seemed to bolster the notion of abuse. There was Andrew’s bed—just a bare piece of plywood, with no mattress—and a “security camera,” as the baby monitor was later called at trial, trained on it. There were the charred remnants of his Spider-Man sheets in the fire pit. And then there was the abnormally high sodium level, coupled with Hannah’s account of feeding him Creole seasoning after he had misbehaved. Taken together, the disparate details formed a disturbing picture. It did not matter that Haller, who had seen Andrew in the days leading up to his hospitalization and who was frequently in the Overton home, had never observed any suspicious bruises or indications of abuse. In the eyes of law enforcement, Hannah and Larry were not grieving parents but perpetrators of an appalling crime. As Andrew’s condition deteriorated, CPS barred the Overtons from visiting their son. They were not allowed to be at Andrew’s bedside on the evening of October 3, when he experienced massive organ failure. He died at 9:30 p.m.
THE DEATH OF A CHILD—particu larly a sudden, unexplained death in which abuse is suspected—evokes strong emotions, even among seasoned investigators, doctors, forensics experts, and prosecutors. A more thorough investigation would have uncovered ample evidence to suggest that Andrew had an undiagnosed eating disorder, raising the possibility that he had unintentionally consumed too much salt on his own. But law enforcement officials are accustomed to handling child abuse cases, not medical mysteries, and salt poisoning is rare enough that most emergency room doctors will never encounter a case during their careers. Against the backdrop of possible abuse, authorities wasted little time. Larry was charged with injury to a child for failing to get Andrew timely medical attention. The onus for the boy’s death fell on Hannah, who was charged with capital murder.
The state’s case would be predicated in part on the findings of Ray Fernandez, the Nueces County medical examiner, who ruled Andrew’s death to be a homicide. Fernandez determined that the boy had died as a result of acute sodium toxicity, with “blunt force head trauma” as a contributing factor. That Andrew had sustained a head injury was based on the presence of a half-inch area of hemorrhaging under the scalp. There was no evidence of external bleeding or injuries to Andrew’s head, however, and at a pre-trial hearing, Fernandez conceded that the hemorrhaging could have been related to elevated sodium in the blood. State district judge Jose Longoria, who would oversee Hannah’s trial the following fall, would later rule Fernandez’s finding of blunt force trauma to be inadmissible because it was not based on sufficient data or reliable methodology. Nevertheless, the idea that Andrew had sustained a head injury propelled the case forward, further casting Hannah as an abuser.
That perception would throw her other children into the investigation as well. During a wide-ranging interview with a social worker to determine if he had ever been abused, Isaac mentioned that he and his siblings had been given pepper, which he described as “spicy stuff,” as a punishment for lying. (A former pastor of Hannah’s had advocated reprimanding children when they were dishonest by putting a single red pepper flake on their tongues.) Given that Hannah was suspected of poisoning Andrew with Creole seasoning, the suggestion that the Overtons had used pepper to discipline their children raised immediate concerns. On October 3, while Andrew was still hospitalized, the agency removed Isaac, Isabel, Ally, and Sebastian from their parents’ custody, placing them in two separate foster homes in Beeville, sixty miles away. The following day, family court judge Carl Lewis awarded temporary custody to Hannah’s mother and stepfather. Larry and Hannah were granted supervised visits. Once reunited with their children—who were terrified by the ordeal—Larry and Hannah had to break the awful news to them about Andrew. Weeping, they told the children that their brother had gone to be with Jesus.
A funeral for Andrew followed at Seaside Memorial Park, alongside Corpus Christi Bay, at which Pastor Rod Carver officiated. He and Noreen had recently lost their own son, who had been stillborn, making his grief particularly acute. As he grasped for the right words to convey the depth of pain a parent feels over the loss of a child, he noticed a row of unfamiliar faces. “Hess and a group of CPS workers were standing in the back with dark glasses on, their arms crossed, scowls on their faces,” Carver said. “That was the most uncomfortable service I have ever done. It was very tense. By that point, Hannah had completely broken down emotionally.”
Corpus Christi’s introduction to Hannah came the following week, when she and Larry were arrested and led past a bank of TV cameras outside the Nueces County jail. News reports that followed, prominently featuring their grim-faced mug shots, cast the Overton home as a house of horrors. (“More shocking details on abuse suffered by four-year-old before death,” began one breathless report.) Veteran defense attorney John Gilmore, whom the Overtons had retained using funds raised by their church, was stunned to learn of the arrests from reporters, who called asking for comment. “Channel Three, Channel Six, Channel Ten, the Caller-Times—they all knew ahead of time,” Gilmore said. “Hess had given me his word that he would tell me if and when warrants were going to be issued, so that Hannah and Larry could turn themselves in.” Instead, law enforcement officials had apprehended the Overtons by making a felony traffic stop, a practice usually reserved for suspects believed to be armed and dangerous. With guns drawn, police officers had surrounded Hannah and Larry’s car as they returned from an errand, forcing them to the ground and handcuffing them. “It was like they were arresting Bonnie and Clyde,” Gilmore said.
The media coverage of the case stirred widespread outrage. The Corpus Christi Caller-Times’s online comments section filled with the vitriol of readers, some of whom called for Hannah to receive the death penalty. (“You can just tell by looking at her how evil she is,” one wrote.) Fueling the public’s antipathy was an affidavit written by a CPS child abuse investigator named Jesse Garcia, who claimed that Hannah had admitted to forcing Andrew to drink two cupfuls of “chili with water” and quoted her as saying that she then “beat the shit out of him.” Garcia never produced any documentation or witnesses to corroborate his claim, and internal police memos show that law enforcement officials doubted the veracity of his story. Hess disavowed Garcia’s account at a court hearing regarding the Overton children, and prosecutors never entered Garcia’s affidavit into evidence or called him to testify at Hannah’s trial. (He was subsequently fired by CPS after having three car accidents on the job in less than six months.) But the damage was done: that Hannah had confessed to force-feeding Andrew and beating him was repeated, uncorrected, on the local news.
Even more devastating to Hannah were the actions that CPS took that January. Days after she gave birth to her daughter Emma, CPS took the newborn into protective custody. At a subsequent family court hearing, in which Hannah’s civil attorney argued that she should be given access to the infant so that she could continue nursing her, Judge Lewis returned Emma to her parents, but with conditions. The Overtons had to remain at the Carvers’ home, where they had been staying to avoid the camera crews that were camped out on their own doorstep, and they were never to be left alone with the baby. Hannah—who had already lost a child and was now living apart from her four older ones—was in a fragile state of mind. “There were days I had to remind her to eat, to brush her teeth, to get out of bed,” Noreen told me.
The Carvers, like most members of Calvary Chapel, never doubted her innocence. “Knowing Hannah, it was inconceivable that she would ever hurt a child,” said Noreen. Hannah’s supporters included a young churchgoer named Dawn Werkhoven, who had lived with the Overtons the year leading up to Andrew’s death. Hannah and Larry had taken her in after her marriage ended in divorce, giving her their extra bedroom while she got back on her feet. “I never saw Hannah be anything but patient and loving with all the kids,” the now-married mother of two told me. Being in the Overtons’ home had afforded Werkhoven an intimate view of the family. Her bedroom was just a few feet away from the children’s rooms, which were always open; their doors had been removed so that the kids could easily come and go as they pleased. The children liked to hang out in her room and talk to her, particularly Andrew, who always visited her for an extra hug before bedtime. “If anything had been wrong, I would have known it,” she insisted. “Would I really have stayed with a family that would abuse a child?”
THE MOST UNSETTLING ASPECT of The State of Texas v. Hannah Ruth Overton, which got under way in August 2007, was how effectively a woman who had spent most of her life as a do-gooder could be recast as a monster. The particulars of her crime, as sketched out by the prosecution, were vague; assistant district attorney Sandra Eastwood, a passionate child advocate, conceded in opening arguments that she was not sure how Hannah had made Andrew eat so much salt. “We don’t know precisely how she got it down Andrew, but we know that he was very, very obedient,” Eastwood told the jury, standing before the TV news cameras that Judge Longoria had allowed inside the courtroom. “And we do have some evidence of bruising to his nose [which could indicate] his nostrils were squeezed and he was made to drink it.”
Over the course of the three-week-long trial, Eastwood sought to convince jurors that a mother with no history of violence or mental illness had force-fed her child to death—a scenario that each prosecution witness helped, incrementally, to suggest was possible. Patricia Gonzalez, a nurse at the urgent care clinic, told the jury that Hannah had not behaved like a panic-stricken parent and had “had a smile on her face” as she performed CPR on the boy. Another nurse, Dina Zapata, remembered Hannah smirking as she tried to resuscitate him. Both women’s accounts were problematic; Gonzalez had never made a statement to police and was testifying from memory after nearly a year’s worth of negative media coverage, while Zapata had failed to mention anything about Hannah smirking when she wrote her initial report about the incident. Yet the image they conjured—of a woman grinning at the sight of a comatose four-year-old—was devastating. Gemma Mitchell, a phlebotomist, recalled overhearing Hannah tell medical staff that Andrew had stopped breathing after he was “punished.” No one could corroborate her story, and under cross-examination, she admitted that she had never told anyone this fact until taking the stand. Still, the overall impression was a damning one.
Other witnesses testified that they had detected signs of abuse. One paramedic recounted how he had seen two sores on Andrew “that looked to me like cigarette burns because they were round.” Another paramedic also believed the sores were cigarette burns, though he admitted he had only looked at them “from a distance.” Fernandez, the medical examiner, said he had observed “burnlike scarring” on Andrew’s arm that had likely been caused by “contact with a hot surface.” But neither Larry nor Hannah smoked. Not until shortly before closing arguments did jurors hear from the defense’s expert witness, a Harvard-educated pathologist and assistant medical examiner in San Francisco, Judy Melinek, who offered her opinion that the sores were consistent with mosquito bites that had been scratched and picked at.
The prosecution’s most persuasive testimony came from Rotta, the pediatric critical care specialist who had originally expressed concern that Andrew had been mistreated. “A comment someone made was that it appeared that this child had been in a fight with a porcupine,” the physician stated. “There were so many bruises and scratches that it would be difficult to describe them all.” Rotta allowed that the appearance of Andrew’s body may have been due in part to the fact that he was coagulopathic, or not able to clot blood properly, a condition that occurs after a person has gone into cardiac arrest and can cause excessive bleeding and bruising. But he was adamant that the boy’s death had not been accidental. Andrew had never been diagnosed with pica, Rotta reminded jurors. “We have a child that was well until that afternoon, that had behavioral issues, that was having temper tantrums, that was then given something . . . probably to punish his behavior, that then goes into cardiorespiratory arrest.”
Rotta stopped short of describing the manner in which he believed Andrew had been made to eat a lethal amount of salt—a dose that, after analyzing Andrew’s blood, he determined would have consisted of 23 teaspoons of Zatarain’s Creole Seasoning or 6 teaspoons of salt. The physician only said that the scratch marks he had noticed on the boy’s neck had been caused, he believed, by another person. The marks “could be consistent with many things, including a fight, an altercation, someone trying to hold this child’s neck forcefully,” he said.
Andrew’s former foster mother, Sharon Hamil, who was devastated by the boy’s death, testified that Andrew had not exhibited significant developmental or behavioral problems, aside from his speech delay, during the time that he lived with her—a characterization that was rebutted by numerous members of Calvary Chapel later in the trial but that cast Hannah’s credibility into doubt. “He was always happy,” Hamil testified. She believed that Andrew’s eating habits were not the stuff of pathology but those of a growing boy. “Andrew liked to eat every day, all day, any time,” she said.
By the time Hannah took the stand, jurors appeared to have made up their minds. Several crossed their arms; others looked away. By that point, they had already been shown numerous photos of Andrew’s small, bruised body postmortem. They had also watched the video of Hess questioning Hannah, during which she described calling a paramedic friend in Oklahoma for guidance when the boy’s condition deteriorated, and even using her camera’s flash to check if his pupils were reactive, but never calling for an ambulance. Sitting in the courtroom, she tried to explain how she had failed to recognize that Andrew’s condition was life-threatening. “I realized that it was something serious . . . a few minutes before we actually took him in,” she testified. Until then, she said, Andrew “was doing nothing that my other kids hadn’t done with the flu. . . . There wasn’t anything that I thought was dangerously wrong with him at that point. I didn’t realize the seriousness of the situation.” Eastwood questioned how Andrew had come to have scratches on his neck. “Could it be that you held his nose, held his neck, and made him drink this horrible concoction?” the prosecutor challenged her during a withering cross-examination. “Absolutely not,” Hannah shot back.
Despite Eastwood’s zeal, there were still basic questions that the prosecution could not explain. How had Hannah, who was six months pregnant and recovering from whiplash, managed to overpower Andrew? How had she known how much salt would kill him? And how had she forced him to choke down the lethal slurry through a sippy cup—a drinking container that is, by design, able to release its contents only when sucked on? Yet according to the unusual wording of the jury charge, jurors had to believe just one of two scenarios to find Hannah guilty: that she deliberately made Andrew ingest a lethal amount of salt or that she purposely neglected to get timely medical attention, knowing that this would kill him. In other words, if the jury could not agree conclusively that she had poisoned Andrew, it could still rule that she was guilty of capital murder “by omission,” or by failure to act.
Gilmore and his defense team, which included two civil attorneys versed in the intricacies of medical testimony, tried to counter the prosecution’s claims that Hannah had poisoned Andrew and purposely delayed medical treatment. (In his 32 years of practicing law, Gilmore told me, he has never run across the charge of “capital murder by omission” before or since.) Melinek, the defense’s expert witness, testified about pica and an array of factors that could have contributed to Andrew’s death, including undiagnosed diabetes. And a succession of witnesses, nearly all of them members of Calvary Chapel, recounted Andrew’s unusual eating habits and Hannah’s attentive parenting. During closing arguments, Gilmore emphasized that Hannah had no motive to kill Andrew and that the state had failed to prove that she had intentionally caused the boy’s death.
But just as the prosecution could not show exactly how Hannah had forced Andrew to ingest a lethal dose of salt, neither could the defense give precise details for how the four-year-old had come to have so much sodium in his body. Prosecutors exploited that uncertainty in final arguments, asserting that Andrew did not have pica. Throughout the trial, Eastwood had suggested that the Overtons had withheld food as part of a larger pattern of abuse, and as she addressed the jury, she insisted that Andrew had scavenged for food because he was hungry. “The defendant has portrayed herself as a nurturing Christian woman,” Eastwood proclaimed. “Does God want a child to go to bed hurting, in pain, fearful, being looked at by closed-circuit television? Any God, Christian or not, would have wanted a better mother for Andrew.”
The burden on the state to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt was, Gilmore told me, perhaps less than it should have been. “There was a dead child,” he observed. “The jury was not just going to let her walk.” Capital murder carries two possible punishments in Texas—the death penalty or life without parole—and the district attorney’s office had already decided not to seek death. If convicted, Hannah would receive an automatic life sentence. However, Judge Longoria could allow the jury to consider a lesser charge if he felt that the evidence did not support capital murder, and after hearing the state’s case, he did so, telling both the prosecution and the defense that he was willing to let the jury consider manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide. (Both carry shorter sentences and differ from capital murder on the issue of intent; a motorist who hits and kills someone while driving too fast is often deemed to be criminally negligent in that he did not set out to take a life but was aware of the danger of speeding.) Gilmore urged Hannah more than once to agree to have the jury consider a lesser charge, but she was uneasy with what she perceived as an underlying suggestion of wrongdoing. She could not consent to a lesser charge, she told her attorneys, because she felt it would mean she was admitting fault.
It was a catastrophic decision. After nearly eleven hours of deliberation—during which jurors sent out thirteen notes to the judge, primarily seeking to clarify medical testimony—the jury found her guilty of capital murder. As the verdict was read, Hannah looked horror-struck. Larry, who was sitting behind her, broke down. Before she was led away in handcuffs, the couple embraced for several minutes, overcome with emotion.
But had jurors fully understood the decision they had been asked to make? When Gilmore polled the jury afterward, all twelve members stated that they had found Hannah guilty of capital murder by omission for not acting quickly enough to save Andrew; none believed that she had poisoned him. Yet to find her guilty, they’d had to believe that she knew he would die if she did not get him immediate medical attention. According to juror number three, a high school English teacher named Margaret Warfield, that was not the case. “The jury found that Mrs. Overton failed to procure medical care within a reasonable time frame,” she wrote in an affidavit that was later filed with Hannah’s appeal. “It seemed to me, based upon the wording of the charge, that we had no choice but to find her guilty of capital murder.” But, Warfield added, “I do not believe that Mrs. Overton knew that her actions (or lack thereof) would kill Andrew Byrd [sic]. Although I believe that Mrs. Overton was remiss in seeking timely medical care for Andrew Byrd, I do not believe that she intended or knew that this would result in his death.” The wording of the jury charge, she added, had been “ambiguous and confusing.” Ultimately, Warfield wrote, “I do not feel that justice has been served.”
TWO DAYS AFTER HANNAH WAS sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, a pediatrician named Edgar Cortes took the unusual step of contacting Gilmore. The doctor had been the on-call emergency medicine physician at Driscoll the day that Andrew arrived, and he had resuscitated the boy as he was transported to the intensive care unit. Although Cortes had been scheduled to testify for the prosecution, he was never put on the witness stand. (During the third week of the trial, moments before the case was sent to the jury, Eastwood had asked Judge Longoria if she could call Cortes as a rebuttal witness, but the judge, who had grown impatient with the length of the trial, denied her request.) As a frequent witness for the state in child abuse cases, Cortes was not in the habit of reaching out to defense attorneys, but he was so angered by the verdict that he picked up the phone. “I have mitigating testimony that I think would have been very useful to your client,” he said in a voice mail he left for Gilmore. “Please call me at your earliest convenience.”
Unlike the three physicians who had testified for the prosecution, Cortes was the only doctor who had seen Andrew before his hospitalization; he had evaluated the boy during a routine checkup when Andrew was three years old and still living with Hamil. “Andrew was not a normal child,” Cortes explained to me. “A colleague of mine who attended the trial told me that the prosecution described Andrew again and again as a normal child, and that is a great distortion of the truth. Andrew was a sweet boy who had significant neurological and developmental disorders. He had a speech disorder called echolalia, which is one of the things we see typically in children who have autism spectrum disorders. He displayed hyperactive behavior and possibly had some cognitive delays as well.” The doctor’s assessment of Andrew as developmentally delayed was significant because it dovetailed with Hannah’s testimony. She had told the jury of the boy’s unusual habits—the inappropriate eating, the obsessive picking and scratching, the head banging—but her version of events had been tainted by the specter of abuse.
Cortes believed that Andrew’s death was accidental. “The intentional poisoning of a child is usually perpetrated with sedatives, anticonvulsants, or medications like injectable insulin, not food,” he told me. “The sodium content of Zatarain’s is not listed on its packaging. How do you poison someone with a substance you don’t know the contents of?” That Hannah had not sought immediate medical attention did not change his view. “Benign conditions and life-threatening conditions look the same in the beginning,” he said. “You can ask, ‘Why didn’t she go to the hospital sooner?’ but in hindsight, everything is obvious. If she had taken Andrew to the hospital earlier, what would she have taken him in for? Because he was vomiting? Because he felt cold?” He suspected that as the boy’s condition worsened, Hannah had fallen victim to what he calls “stress blindness,” a phenomenon he had witnessed many times during his 42 years of practicing medicine. “I’ve seen doctors and nurses freeze up when a patient comes in convulsing or in extremis,” he said. “When people are under severe stress, their judgment becomes poor.”
Cortes’s perspective was revelatory. “He would have been witness number one for the defense,” Gilmore told me. “The key issues in this case were knowledge and intent, and his opinion went directly to those issues.” Hannah’s attorneys would later argue on appeal that the doctor’s opinion—that Hannah had never intended for the boy to die—amounted to exculpatory evidence that the state had withheld from the defense. But at a hearing on the defense’s motion for a new trial, Eastwood stated under oath that Cortes had always been a passionate advocate for the prosecution; he had even remarked to her that he thought Hannah should “fry.” Cortes does not dispute that story. “When I first learned Andrew had died, I was angry,” he explained to me. “But I told prosecutors five months before the trial that I believed Hannah had no intent to kill him and that this was not a capital murder case. I was assured that they would be seeking lesser charges.” During the trial, he said, “I sat at the courthouse for five days, waiting to testify. I came in the morning, and I left in the evening. To never have been produced—it was very strange.”
Hannah’s conviction was upheld in 2009 by the Thirteenth Court of Appeals. “It is unclear,” read the court’s ruling, “whether the state actually knew of Dr. Cortes’s opinion.” The court also ruled that the wording of the jury charge was “free from error.” The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals declined the opportunity to reconsider the decision.
Then, in the spring of 2010, Hannah’s appellate attorney, Cynthia Orr, made a startling discovery. Orr—a formidable legal mind whose work recently helped exonerate Michael Morton, a Williamson County man who was wrongly convicted of his wife’s 1986 murder—had begun preparing a writ of habeas corpus, a last-ditch effort to persuade the courts to review Hannah’s case. The writ is the final opportunity a defendant has to introduce new evidence into the record. Looking for any information that might bolster the appeal, Orr requested access to the prosecution’s case file. Sifting through it one afternoon, Orr came across documents she had never seen before, which showed that Andrew’s stomach contents did not have an elevated amount of salt when he arrived at the urgent care clinic. Orr forwarded the paperwork to a leading expert on salt poisoning, Michael Moritz, and asked him to explain its significance.
Moritz is the clinical director of pediatric nephrology at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, where he specializes in children’s kidney diseases. In 2007 he published a seminal paper on salt poisoning, in which he examined, among other things, documented cases of children who had accidentally ingested excessive quantities of salt. He found that they fit a narrow profile: they were between the ages of one and six, they had been in the foster system or were from abusive homes, and they had pica. Moritz, in fact, had been asked to testify as an expert witness for Hannah’s defense at her trial. After examining Andrew’s medical records, he had determined that the boy’s death was likely accidental. Yet the jury had never heard from him. Short on time as the trial drew to a close, the defense had asked Moritz—who needed to return to Pittsburgh—to sit for a videotaped deposition; when the deposition ran long and could not be completed, the defense was unable to enter it as testimony.
The paperwork Orr now forwarded to him, which showed that Andrew’s stomach contained a great deal of water, only confirmed the clinical director’s initial conclusion. “If someone was trying to murder Andrew, they would have restrained him and prevented him from drinking water,” Moritz subsequently wrote in an affidavit. “The very dilute gastric sodium contents suggest . . . that he had unrestricted access to water.” Given these facts, he explained, “There is not a single piece of evidence which suggests that Hannah Overton salt-poisoned Andrew.” Instead, Moritz added, the most likely scenario was that Andrew “accidentally salt-poisoned himself.”
In light of this information, Moritz felt certain that Andrew’s prognosis would have been the same whether or not Hannah had called an ambulance. “It is unlikely that any intervention would have made a significant difference as Andrew had already taken the most critical step to save himself [by consuming] copious amounts of fluid,” he wrote. The newly discovered documents, Moritz later told me, were “a monumentally important piece of evidence.”
The discovery soon exposed strains among the prosecution team. Former prosecutor Anna Jimenez, who had assisted Eastwood as second chair at Hannah’s trial, subsequently wrote a letter to Orr claiming that a sheaf of medical records that Eastwood had asked her to fax to an expert witness before trial had not included the documents that Orr had uncovered. “I fear she may have purposely withheld evidence that may have been favorable to Hannah Overton’s defense,” Jimenez wrote in her letter, which Orr would include in the writ. She also described her unease with Eastwood’s “trial strategy,” claiming the prosecutor had told her that they would not be calling Cortes because a record in his file indicated that Andrew had behavioral problems. Finally, Jimenez stated, “I do not believe that there was sufficient evidence to indicate that Hannah Overton intentionally killed Andrew Burd.” In response, Eastwood penned an affidavit, asserting that she did not engage in any misconduct. “[I] fully disclosed the DA’s office’s case file to the defense,” she wrote in the lengthy statement. “If I failed in my duties of disclosure before the Hannah Overton trial (which the record corroborates I did not), then so did Ms. Jimenez.”
Orr filed the writ in April 2011, and soon afterward San Antonio Express-News reporter John MacCormack—whose reporting has raised questions about the fairness of Hannah’s conviction—made a routine call to the office to gauge the reaction to the recent developments in the case. He reached Doug Norman, who was part of the prosecution team at Hannah’s trial and who is now responsible for fighting her appeal. (Like Eastwood, neither Norman nor Jimenez would comment for this article.) Norman’s remarks were hardly the stuff of a cocksure prosecutor. “I may harbor doubts, but a jury heard this case and made a decision, and everyone has to respect that decision,” he told the Express-News. “I’ll put it this way. My job requires me to be an advocate for the state. As long as I can make a nonfrivolous argument, I’ll make it, but nothing in my job prevents me from praying for a more just outcome.”
EVERY SATURDAY FOR THE past several years, Larry has ridden his motorcycle from Corpus Christi to the Murray Unit, the maximum-security women’s prison west of Waco where Hannah is incarcerated: a squat, concrete building walled off from the world with cyclone fencing and coils of razor wire. He and Hannah are allotted two hours, during which they sit together in the dayroom, flanked by other inmates and their families. Once a month, Larry loads the kids into his van and they make the trip together, although on those visits, no contact is allowed. Hannah must sit on the opposite side of a metal divider, behind Plexiglas. There are two phones that the kids can speak into, and they eagerly pass the receivers back and forth, recounting the month’s events in stereo. “They get to see her for two hours, once a month—twenty-four hours in a year,” Larry said. He and the kids return home the same day so that he can teach Sunday school the next morning. Round-trip, the journey is 632 miles.
That Larry is able to be with the children at all, much less raise them, is “a huge blessing,” he told me. Not long after his arrest, a grand jury upgraded the charges against him to capital murder, and he feared that he too might face life in prison. But after Hannah’s conviction, the DA’s office offered him several plea deals, each of which required him to acknowledge that he had intentionally caused Andrew’s death. Larry turned them down. Finally he agreed to plead no contest to criminally negligent homicide. “The way it was explained to me, that’s how I would be charged if I accidentally ran a stoplight and hit somebody,” he said. “Pleading out to that was much better than having my children grow up without a mother or a father.” In exchange for his plea, Larry was given five years’ probation and a $5,000 fine. (Hannah’s mother and stepfather—whom the courts had named “managing conservators” of the children—were then able to return them to Larry’s custody.) While he was relieved not to have to serve prison time, the discrepancy between his wife’s punishment and his own left him stupefied. “How can one person get probation and another get life without parole for the same thing?” Larry said.
I visited Hannah at the Murray Unit one bright, cloudless afternoon, when the warden granted her a few hours to speak with me. She was even slighter in person than I had expected, and as she related the events of the past five years in her soft voice, she looked hopelessly out of place in her white prison jumpsuit. Yet her life behind bars, however incongruous, has taken on its own rhythm. She is awakened every morning at 2:45 a.m., rarely sleeping well; the overhead light above her bed never shuts off, and announcements blare throughout the night over the loudspeaker. At 4 a.m., she reports to the laundry, where she folds shirts and hands out clean clothes to inmates. After her shift ends in the late morning, there are letters to write home, in which she tries to stay present in her children’s lives by choreographing what she can from a distance. “I plan their birthday parties from here,” she told me. “I pick out the games and I make the decorations, if I can.” She devotes most of her evenings to Bible studies, leading groups of inmates through careful examinations of Scripture. One of her favorite books to revisit is Ruth. “It’s about trusting God and seeing how he is a god of redemption and restoration,” she said.
As we sat across from each other in the dayroom, Hannah and I discussed her case and the anguish that had consumed her following Andrew’s death. “I spent many nights beating myself up over ‘Could I have done this or could I have done that?’ ” Hannah told me, staring at her hands. “I regret that I didn’t push harder from the beginning to find out what was wrong with him—that I believed his problems were just due to his previous abuse and neglect, and that, when I finally decided he needed to see a doctor about his pica, we didn’t get him in quicker.” When I pressed her to explain why she and Larry had not called 911, she leaned forward, as if pleading with me to understand. “Because we were not thinking we were in a life-or-death situation,” she insisted. “For us to go to [the clinic] was a lot faster than it would have been had we called, at that point.”
As we talked about Andrew, she had to stop several times to compose herself. “I’m supposed to be done crying,” she said apologetically at one point, brushing away tears. Despite all the pain, she told me that if she could do it over again, she would not change their decision to bring Andrew into their home. “It’s not even a consideration,” she said. “I wouldn’t give up that time we had with him and that he had with us.”
I asked Hannah if her faith had been shaken by Andrew’s loss and the suffering that she and her family had experienced. “There was a time when I questioned how God could allow this to happen,” she said. “But what I’ve realized is that I can trust his heart, even though I don’t understand his plan.” The reality that Hannah, who is 34, may spend the rest of her life in prison for capital murder—a sentence usually reserved for violent criminals who pose a continuing threat to society—is one she is still struggling to understand; even harder to grasp is the possibility that she might never be reunited with her children. “I miss everything,” she later wrote to me. “Good-night kisses, bedtime stories, playing in the yard, birthdays, loose teeth, Christmas plays . . . movie nights, waking up to their beautiful faces.” The Court of Criminal Appeals is currently reviewing her writ, which contends that the information about Andrew’s gastric contents are grounds for a new trial. The court, which could rule imminently or years from now, could send the case back to Judge Longoria for a hearing or—far less likely—overturn her conviction. Because the court has not been inclined to intercede so far, members of Calvary Chapel have begun a letter-writing campaign to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles in hopes of securing a pardon or a commutation.
Meanwhile, those who once pursued Hannah with such certainty have undergone their own trials. Detective Hess was put on administrative leave in 2008 after it came to light that he had disclosed confidential information to the suspect in an ongoing investigation for indecency with a child. Hess was allowed to return to the force and is now a patrol sergeant. And Eastwood was fired from the DA’s office in 2010. Then–district attorney Jimenez did not publicly disclose the reasons for the termination, but it occurred one week after Eastwood informed her superiors that she had been romantically involved in the past with a sex offender; she reported that she feared the information had been used by the offender’s defense attorney to get him probation in a criminal case. (A subsequent investigation by the attorney general’s office found that no crimes had been committed.)
As the Overtons wait on the appellate courts, Larry goes about the task of raising their five children, while also trying to rebuild his business. (After his arrest, he lost most of his clients. “One woman said she didn’t want to work with a child killer,” Larry told me.) In his role as single dad, he is aided by his extended family and his many friends from Calvary Chapel, who pitch in to do cleaning, grocery shopping, laundry, and babysitting. A church member who homeschools her daughters educates the Overton children, using lesson plans Hannah sends her. (Haller, their next-door neighbor, has since moved to Houston.) The kids now range in age from four to twelve, and when I visited them late one afternoon, not long after I had seen Hannah, they seemed unencumbered by the tragedy that had engulfed their family. They were no different from other children their age: exuberant, funny, guileless. As Larry stood in the kitchen and peeled potatoes, the kids—excited to have a visitor—showed me around their house, pointing out their favorite hiding places and the plaster cast of their footprints in the hallway, which includes the letter A for Andrew. The absence of their mother and their late brother was quietly acknowledged. “This is where Andrew used to sleep,” Isaac told me softly as he led me into the boys’ room. “There have been a few tear-filled nights because one of the kids misses Andrew,” Larry told me later. “I remind them that the Lord loves him more than anyone could and he is with Him now and we will see him again someday.”
The kids took me out back, where they jumped on the trampoline and played hide-and-seek in the salt grass. Emma, the youngest, trailed behind them with a doll, occasionally running inside to bang on the piano. It was Emma whom Hannah was pregnant with when Andrew died, and she is the child Hannah knows least. When Emma took her first steps, Larry brought her to the parking lot outside the county jail so that Hannah could watch from her cell above.
Larry called out that dinner was ready, and we gathered inside around a rough-hewn oak table he had made years ago. Dinner was potato soup—“It’s good and filling, and it’s cheap,” Larry told me—which the kids dived into after saying grace. They chattered about an upcoming birthday party and discussed the merits of their favorite colors, finishing each other’s sentences between slurps of soup. Had Andrew sat among them, I realized, he would have been nine years old.
After dinner the kids settled down in front of the TV to watch a movie that was Isabel’s pick: a Japanese animated film that her brothers and sisters showed less enthusiasm for, fidgeting as they lay next to each other on the carpet. Before they headed to bed, Larry turned up the lights for their nightly devotions. Isaac read John 9 aloud while Larry helped him sound out the difficult words (“synagogue,” “Pharisees”). A short discussion followed about the passage, in which Jesus heals a blind man, and then Larry closed his Bible and said, “Okay, guys, let’s pray.” One by one, the kids spoke their prayers, each of which ended with the same wish.
“Dear God, thank you for the soup,” Isaac said, his head bowed, his eyes closed tightly. “And thanks for the movie, even though it was kind of weird. I pray that you will bring Mom home soon.”