Texas Mother of 5 Released After Spending Years in Prison for Foster Son's Murder
By JUJU CHANG, SHANA DRUCKERMAN and JON MEYERSOHN
Hannah Overton, who has spent seven years in a Texas prison for the murder of a young foster child she says she didn't commit, has finally won her freedom and will be spending this Christmas with her family.
A Nueces County judge granted Overton's bond at a hearing Tuesday afternoon for $50,000 and she was released from the county jail.
The district attorney of Nueces County, Mark Skurka, has already announced his intention to try Overton again on capital murder charges. That trial currently has no date set.
Her release, pending a new trial, comes over two months after the highest appellate court in Texas overturned her murder conviction and life sentence for the death of 4-year-old Andrew Burd, a foster child Overton and her husband, Larry, were in the process of adopting.
Overton sat down with ABC News for an exclusive interview from behind prison bars after she got word via email that the appellate court had ruled in her favor.
‘[The email] said, ‘Congratulations. The court of criminal appeals voted on your behalf, seven to two, and you’ll be going home,’” Overton said.
“I said, ‘is this real?’ and I started tearing up,” she continued. “I was like, ‘does this say what I think it says?’ … I gave it to a friend, and she looked at it and she started crying, and then I was like, ‘OK, it does say what I think it says.’”
Overton, a 37-year-old mother of five from Corpus Christi, Texas, was convicted in 2007 after being accused of force-feeding Andrew enough salt to kill him, even though she had no previous problems with the law and was raising four children and was pregnant with a fifth.
When Hannah was convicted, her daughter, Emma, was still a breastfeeding newborn. Now, she is seven years old. In a 2012 interview from her Texas prison Overton told ABC News that during one of the monthly visitations with her children, “[Emma] took her first step, I was there. So I got to see that.” But there were many other things she had missed from behind bars. “Loose teeth, first day of kindergarten, last day of kindergarten. My son’s in high school now. I’ve missed, you know, so many things.”
“The last time he hugged his mom, he was putting arms around her waist, and when he hugs her this time she’ll be putting arms around his waist,” said Larry Overton about his teenage son, Isaac.
Larry, who has been raising the children on his own since his wife’s conviction said the reunion would be joyful, but not without its challenges. “You know, for me it’s just like it’s been so much that’s changed in the past seven years for them that they have time to catch up for that, but I think there’s going to be a lot of things like that. It’s going to be tough for them.”
The original prosecutor in the Overton case, Sandra Eastwood, was terminated for reasons unrelated to this case years after the trial concluded. Overton has accused Eastwood of acting unethically in her case, something Eastwood has denied repeatedly.
The appellate court did not rule specifically on Overton's claims of prosecutorial misconduct, saying that she deserved a new trial on claims of ineffective counsel. However, three of the judges issued a concurring opinion saying the proceedings in the case were "problematic from the beginning."
But Overton says she doesn’t blame her attorneys and forgives the former prosecutor.
“I don’t know what her intentions were, what her motive was behind it, but I’ve chosen to forgive her because I can’t hold onto that bitterness,” Overton said.
ABC News has followed Overton and her husband Larry Overton’s story since her conviction. Larry Overton was also charged with murder, but after his wife's conviction, he was offered a plea deal and was given probation. After he completed his probation, the charges were dismissed.
Their arrests came so quickly after Burd died, they said, that they had no time to grieve for the boy they hoped to permanently make a part of their family. “It’s somebody’s worst nightmare,” Hannah Overton said. “After your child dies to be told that somebody think it’s your fault.”
“We were just waiting for someone to look at it and say this is just an accident,” Larry Overton added. “Instead we were arrested.”
At Hannah Overton’s original trial in 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.
“Andrew had an enraged mother who didn’t-- I don’t think loved him the way that she loved her own biological children,” said former Nueces County prosecutor Sandra Eastwood.
“The case boils down to a woman who basically tortured a child,” Eastwood continued. “Making him sleep on plywood… burning sheets, becoming so enraged she forced him to have 23 teaspoons of hot pepper, and then watched him die in agony.
The defense presented the jury with a medical mystery. They speculated Andrew might have had pica, an eating disorder characterized by an obsessive appetite and that Andrew accidentally poisoned himself by consuming a fatal amount of sodium. Witnesses outside the home said they had seen Andrew's bizarre habits, too. The day Andrew died Hannah said she found him in the kitchen pantry but could not determine what he had consumed, if anything.
To find Hannah guilty, jurors had to believe either of two scenarios: that Hannah Overton force-fed Andrew salt knowing it would kill him or that she neglected to get medical help fast enough knowing that it would kill him. They convicted her based on the latter argument, that she did not seek help quickly enough. Overton was convicted of capital murder, an automatic life sentence in Texas because the child was under the age of 6.
Her new lawyer Cynthia Orr worked tirelessly to win her release, as Overton’s husband raised their five children back at home in Corpus Christi.
As for Overton and her family, her release is a new chance to start their lives together.
“I just want to hug my kids,” she said. “I know we’ll make up for it, but I don’t know what we’ll be able to catch up for seven years. That’s-- it’s gone, and taken from us.”