-- Murder charges against Hannah Overton, a south Texas mother of five who had been convicted in the 2007 salt poisoning trial in the death of her foster son, have been dismissed by the district attorney.
Overton spent seven years in prison for the murder of a young foster child that she says she didn't commit. She had been released on bond in December after a Texas appellate court overturned her conviction and life sentence for the death of 4-year-old Andrew Burd, the child Overton and her husband, Larry, were in the process of adopting before he died.
"Wow, we don't even know where to begin," Hannah Overton told ABC News exclusively after she heard that her case had been dismissed and she would not have to endure another trial. "We are so excited about all God has done in and through all of this. He has carried us through."
Nueces County District Attorney Mark Skurka had charged Overton a second time for murder after her release. Those charges were not considered double jeopardy because Overton’s conviction was overturned by the higher court on the basis of ineffective counsel, which granted her a new trial. Overton's original trial attorneys admitted at an appeals hearing that they had made errors. One attorney was even moved to tears explaining how sorry he was for the mistakes he had made in Overton's case.
The new charges were dismissed because of “a myriad of factors which came about after a careful review of the previous trial, re-interviewing some of the key witnesses, consulting with some of the medical experts involved in the case, reviewing evidence adduced at recent hearings and staffing the case with the current prosecutors assigned to the case,” Skurka said in a news release Wednesday.
Overton’s current defense attorney, Cynthia Orr, told ABC News she was thrilled to get the call from Skurka announcing his motion to dismiss had been granted by the judge.
“Both sides worked hard independently to determine the truth and achieve justice for the Overton family, the entire family. Now they can move forward, grieve the loss of Andrew, and heal,” Orr said. “We are grateful for the help and support of so many over the years who contributed to achieving what, for the Overton children, is a joyous result. I look forward to them reclaiming their childhoods unburdened by involvement in such serious adult matters.”
Overton, 38, was convicted in 2007 after being accused of force-feeding young Andrew Burd 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 sent to prison, her daughter, Emma, was still a breast-feeding newborn. Now, she is 8 years old. In a 2012 interview from a 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,” she said at the time.
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 she deserved a new trial on claims of ineffective counsel.
ABC News has followed Overton and her husband's story since her original trial. 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 Andrew 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 told ABC News in an earlier interview. “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 2007 trial, 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,” former Nueces County prosecutor Sandra Eastwood said at trial.
“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.
After the Overton family heard the news yesterday, they said they celebrated with a family dinner at Hannah's mother's home, "with nothing hanging over our heads."
"We cannot say thank you enough for all who have helped especially the attorneys who worked endless hours to prove my innocence and gain my freedom," Overton told ABC News today.