Texas mother's murder conviction overturned in salt poison case
By Tom Dart
A mother found guilty of murder after her foster child died of salt poisoning has had her 2007 conviction overturned by the Texas court of criminal appeals.
Hannah Overton’s attorneys are now seeking to expedite confirmation that the decision is final so she can be released on bail, which would allow her to embrace her family for the first time in seven years. They are also waiting to hear from the Nueces County district attorney’s office, which could seek a re-trial on the murder charge, pursue a lesser charge or dismiss the case.
Overton’s San Antonio-based lawyer, Cynthia Orr, said that her client found out about the court’s ruling during a telephone call with her family on Wednesday evening. “She was very emotional, very excited and very happy and also wondering what all of it meant and what all of the next steps were,” Orr told the Guardian.
Overton’s five children visited her at prison in Gatesville, near Waco, every month and her husband, Larry, came to see her every week. They were not permitted physical contact. “They’re a very strong family, and they have not been able to act like a loving normal family and been able to touch and nurture,” Orr said.
“We’re overjoyed, and then concerned about where it’s going to go from here and how long it’s going to take. It’s been seven years coming, there’s just a lot of emotion that’s been tied up in that. We’re just hoping that the local DA’s office is going to do what they need to do to allow her to come home to her family,” Larry Overton told the Guardian.
“I wouldn’t say I’m angry. Honestly I’m so grateful that the justice system has prevailed. I wish it had prevailed earlier and prevailed on a local level but ultimately I’m just really grateful.”
Hannah and Larry Overton had seemed the unlikeliest of murder suspects. The devout, Christian couple already had four children and Hannah, then 29, was six months pregnant at the time of Andrew Burd’s death. Both had previously undertaken missionary work and Hannah, a former nurse, felt she had enough experience to handle Andrew, a troubled boy who often threw severe tantrums.
The four-year-old was living with the family in Corpus Christi in October 2006, pending formal completion of the adoption when he fell seriously ill and developed breathing difficulties, slipping into a coma and dying in hospital. Police and medical workers were suspicious of the circumstances and came to believe a crime had been committed.
Before the boy’s death the Overtons had appeared admirable parents to many who knew them. But at Hannah’s trial, which was televised and attracted voracious media interest, she was depicted as a calculating child abuser who punished a naughty boy by force-feeding him with Creole seasoning mixed with water.
“This case boils down to a woman who tortured a child, making him sleep on rough plywood, burning sheets, becoming so enraged she forced him to have 23 teaspoons of hot pepper and then watching him die in agony for two-and-a-half hours,” Sandra Eastwood, the lead prosecutor in the trial, told ABC News in 2012.
A segment of an ABC special on the case.
Defence attorneys failed to use testimony from Dr Michael Moritz, a Pittsburgh-based leading expert on salt intoxication. According to court documents they felt that repeated objections from the prosecution cut into his analysis too obtrusively and would have been too difficult to edit in a way that would have been easy for the jury to follow.
However, much of Moritz’s deposition directly refuted the case for murder, including his conclusion that Overton did not poison Andrew, who most likely ate something by himself which caused his illness. Trial testimony suggested the child was a compulsive eater who may have had an undiagnosed eating disorder and would scavenge around for food and put almost anything in his mouth.
The jury convicted Overton of capital murder “by omission” – not by directly poisoning the child but based on an alleged failure to seek prompt and adequate medical attention. The Overtons did not dial the emergency 911 line and instead took him to an urgent care clinic. Andrew stopped breathing in the car on the way and Hannah Overton tried to resuscitate him.
She was sentenced to life without parole. But Moritz testified that given the boy’s exceptionally high sodium level “it would be extremely unlikely for him to live” regardless of how well and how rapidly he was treated and that salt poisoning symptoms are often unremarkable at the beginning, so a parent might not have reason to suspect a child was gravely ill for at least an hour.
Larry Overton agreed to plead no contest to criminally negligent homicide so that he could stay out of prison and look after his family and was given five years’ probation and a $5,000 fine. In a detailed profile of the case, he told Texas Monthly: “Pleading out to that was much better than having my children grow up without a mother or a father.”
The Criminal Appeals court’s decision to re-examine the case and overturn the verdict comes amid growing political and media scrutiny of prosecutorial conduct prompted by an increasing number of exonerations in Texas and across the US, many in homicide cases. Texas led the country with 13 people absolved in 2013, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.
Remanding the case for re-trial after seven of nine judges ruled in favour, they wrote in their opinionon Wednesday: “We believe that Dr Moritz’s credibility combined with his testimony would have had a strong impact on the jury and sufficiently undermines the outcome of the trial. But for the defense team’s failure to present Dr Moritz’s testimony to the jury in some way, there is a reasonable probability that the outcome of appellant’s trial would have been different.”
They did not address another claim by the defence, who allege that the prosecution withheld evidence that might have helped clear Overton, including test results indicating low stomach sodium levels, which cast doubt on the timing of when the child ingested the lethal quantity of salt, and may show that his foster mother could have done nothing to save him.
“Much of this information was hidden from the lawyers and it was through very tenacious inquiry and persistence that I was able to tease out each piece of information. Even when I finally had it all I couldn’t make sense of it until we put it all together, and examined it from all the different sources, and we finally figured out what happened here. All the lawyers were misled,” said Orr.