Mom Convicted of Salt Poisoning Death Accuses Prosecutor of Misconduct, Awaits New Court Decision

Texas mom Hannah Overton prays that a court overturns her 2007 conviction.

ByABC News
September 7, 2012, 1:57 PM

Sept. 7, 2012 — -- Any day now, Hannah Overton could hear the news that could change her life. After five long years in jail, a Texas court could overturn her murder conviction, allowing her to finally be reunited with her five children.

"Being children, they don't understand the length of how long this all can take ... and they ask me, 'Are you going to be home for this birthday?' ... and it's very hard to not know [when] I will be," she said. "We're praying that this is the last birthday that I'm not there."

Read Juju Chang's reporter's notebook about the Hannah Overton case here.

In 2007, Overton, now 35, 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. But in the years since her conviction, questions have been raised about whether prosecutors were overzealous in their efforts to convict Overton, failing to present the jury with expert testimony and evidence that might have made a difference in the outcome of the trial.

Former prosecutor Sandra Eastwood, "at best, jumped to conclusions and didn't take the time and energy to find the truth," Overton told "20/20" in a recent interview.

See more on the latest episode of "20/20" here.

At worst, Overton added, Eastwood "went along with a lie to win the case."

Eastwood, who spoke to "20/20" in 2008 and stood by her handling of the Overton case, declined a request for a new interview through her attorney. Overton also was interviewed in 2008, in prison, for an episode of "20/20."

After an appeals hearing earlier this year, Overton's fate now rests in the hands of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which could decide either to free Hannah, order a new trial, or reject her appeal.

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 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 salt knowing it would kill him or that she neglected to get medical help fast enough knowing that it would kill him.

At Overton's appeals hearing this past February, the judge heard testimony from two witnesses who appeared on "20/20's" original report saying they believed Andrew's death was accidental, not murder. Neither the prosecution nor the defense called either of the doctors 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 told "20/20" that he informed the prosecutor, Eastwood, that he saw speech and developmental problems and was surprised to learn that prosecutors described him at trial as being "normal." During February's hearing, 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 said.

"And was [Eastwood] aware of that link to the cognitive and developmental?" Hujar-Orr asked.

"I hope so," Cortes said. "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."

Trying to determine exactly what happened to Andrew that day has been a challenge for Overton's defense teams now and then. Based on limited health records presented at trial, it appeared Andrew's status within the foster care system meant that he was never under one doctor's care for long. Any serious underlying conditions that could have made him susceptible to the salt intoxication that day remain unknown.