April 27, 2012
CORPUS CHRISTI -- 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."
Trying to determine exactly what happened to Andrew Burd that day has been a challenge for Overton's defense teams now and then. Based on limited health records presented at trial, it appears 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 are still unknown.
But one witness for the defense, Dr. Michael Moritz, a leading expert on salt poisoning at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, believes that based on similar cases of children in foster care exhibiting behavioral issues and evidence of Pica, he knows what happened to Andrew that day.
In his 2008 interview with ABC News, Moritz said, "I think [Andrew] was in one of his feeding binges. He was having a tantrum, and he was unsupervised for a brief period of time, and I believe that he ingested a large amount of salt." In court this week, Moritz testified that he still believes this was a case of acute poisoning.
Furthermore, Moritz said he didn't believe Overton knew that Andrew was dying and that even if she had rushed to the hospital immediately, the child may not have survived.
"There is literature showing that even with today's medical technology, under the best medical care, even when it happens in the hospital, you die," Moritz told the court, "This is not necessarily preventable."
Heated Testimony at Hearing
But the most surprising testimony came mid-week when former prosecutor Eastwood admitted she is an alcoholic who got sober in January 2011 and that she was taking prescription diet pills during the time of the trial. She also testified that she could not recall specifics from the trial, though she denied withholding evidence from defense attorneys at the time.
The fragile and often soft-spoken Eastwood was in stark contrast to her demeanor when she spoke to "20/20" in 2008. "I feel very confident that I did the right thing in presenting the evidence and having her convicted," Eastwood said. At the time she remained convinced that Hannah Overton knew or should have known that withholding medical treatment would kill Andrew.
"I think she was angry, enraged, with wanting to punish him and hurt him and then realized, 'Oh my gosh, I've really hurt him.'"
Eastwood's co-counsel at the time of trial, Anna Jimenez, also testified this week saying Eastwood was not "truthful," and that she exhibited bizarre behavior throughout the case.
The defense has argued that evidence pertaining to Andrew Burd's gastric content was deliberately kept from Hannah's trial attorneys. In her testimony, Jimenez said she feared that Eastwood had in fact withheld evidence. She said she raised her concerns about Eastwood's behavior to Eastwood's superiors but nothing was done.
"I was concerned there was possibility that Sandra may have been withholding this intentionally," she told the court.
Testimony is expected to conclude today, after which the trial judge will report his findings to the higher court. The Court of Criminal Appeals then has the option of freeing Overton, granting her a new trial or upholding her capital murder conviction. In the state of Texas, if a child younger than age six dies at the hands of another person, it is considered a capital case.
Overton's case has garnered widespread attention in just the last few months from media outlets within the small coastal city of Corpus Christi and beyond, including Texas Monthly and the Huffington Post. The San Antonio Express-News which originally brought scrutiny to the case published an editorial this week calling on the current district attorney of Nueces County to "acknowledge that the sensational prosecution of Hannah Overton for the death of her son was a miscarriage of justice."
Hannah Overton's husband, Larry, has been a single father of five children while his wife has been incarcerated. Once a month, he packs them into the family van and travel 300 miles to the Texas prison where she is being held. The baby girl, Emma, who was just nine months old when her mother was convicted is now five years old. Andrew Burd would have celebrated his tenth birthday this summer.
Hannah Overton told "20/20" in 2008 that she did not regret trying to adopt Andrew.
"I wouldn't take that away," she said. "He had brothers and sisters and a mommy and daddy, what he called his forever family, because we had to go through a lot of pain since then. It's not fair to him. Or to us."