Four and a half years ago, Hannah Overton, a devout Christian and mother of five, stood in a Texas courtroom and was handed a sentence of life in prison for the 2006 salt poisoning death of a 4-year-old she was trying to adopt, Andrew Burd.
This week, Hannah, 35, returned to that same courthouse for the latest hearing in her post-conviction legal battle. As court proceedings began, her eldest child, Isaac, just 8 at the time of his mother's conviction, now 13, could be seen with his father, Larry, among the group of devoted supporters. The hearing is expected to come to an end early next week.
In February, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ordered the trial court judge who originally heard Overton's case to "make findings of fact as to whether the applicant is actually innocent based upon newly discovered evidence." The court also ruled that the hearing would include arguments and testimony regarding claims of ineffective counsel, and whether prosecutors mishandled evidence that would have helped Hannah's defense.
At 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.
The defense presented the jury with a medical mystery. They presented evidenced that suggested that 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. Teachers and babysitters said they had seen Andrew's bizarre habits too. The day Andrew died Overton said she found him in the kitchen pantry but could not determine what he had consumed, if anything.
To find Overton guilty, jurors had to believe either of two scenarios -- that Overton force-fed Andrew Burd salt knowing it would kill him or that she neglected to get medical help fast enough knowing that it would kill him.
Overton was interviewed in prison in 2008 for an episode of "20/20." The segment also included an exclusive interview with the lead prosecutor, Sandra Eastwood, whom defense attorneys now accuse of acting unethically. Eastwood was terminated for reasons unrelated to this case years after the trial concluded.
Early testimony in this week's hearing came from two witnesses who appeared on 20/20's original report saying they believed Andrew's death was accidental, not murder. Neither one of the doctors had been called to the stand during Hannah's trial in 2007.
Dr. Edgar Cortes, a pediatrician, had seen Andrew as a patient back in 2005, before he went to live with the Overton family. He says that he told prosecutor, Sandra Eastwood, that he saw speech and developmental problems and was surprised to learn that prosecutors described him at trial as being "normal." This week, he reiterated that position in response to questions from Hannah's attorney, Cynthia Hujar-Orr.
"Do these developmental delays make him younger, make him in danger of accidentally harming himself by eating bad things?" Hujar-Orr asked.
"Yes," Cortes replied.
"And was [Eastwood] aware of that link to the cognitive and developmental?"
"I hope so…I think that if we're going to be fair, if we're going to be just we have to take all of the circumstances into consideration."