A Q&A With Pamela Colloff
The executive editor on writing about wrongful conviction cases, interviewing Hannah Overton in prison, and recognizing that things may not be as they seem.
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In “Hannah and Andrew,” executive editor Pamela Colloff examines the case of Hannah Overton, a Corpus Christi homemaker and mother of five who was convicted of murdering a four-year-old boy whom she and her husband were in the process of adopting.
Andrew Burd died on October 3, 2006, of a mysterious and rare case of salt poisoning. Law enforcement, as well as medical personnel who had treated Andrew, quickly concluded that he had been the victim of a crime. Hannah—who had no history with CPS, no previous arrests, and had never had so much as a parking ticket—was charged with capital murder. Based on circumstantial evidence, prosecutors painted a damning portrait of her, arguing that she “snapped” under the demands of parenting and forced Andrew to ingest 23 teaspoons of salt. After a sensational trial, she was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Prosecutors were never able to establish how Hannah—who was six months pregnant and recovering from whiplash—had managed to force Andrew to consume such a large quantity of salt. They discounted substantial evidence that Andrew appeared to have an undiagnosed eating disorder called “pica,” which is more prevalent among foster children. Pica is characterized by a desire to consume inappropriate things that have little or no nutritional value.
Prosecutors were also unable to establish a plausible motive that would explain why Hannah, a former nurse with an unimpeachable track record of caring for special-needs children, would have wanted Andrew dead. Significant scientific evidence has recently come to light that suggests Hannah could not have poisoned Andrew. So far, the appellate courts have failed to act. Hannah remains incarcerated in a maximum-security prison in Gatesville while her husband raises their five children.
Colloff decided to investigate the case to determine whether or not Overton was wrongly convicted. In this interview with Colloff, we get the story behind the story.
As a mother yourself, this story must strike a chord. What was it like for you to write about a mother being harshly accused of such a horrific crime against her own child?
I still can’t grasp the horror of losing a child, and that would be true whether I were a mother or not. I really can’t grasp not only losing a child, but also being accused of murdering that child. And then essentially losing custody of your remaining children. And then being put in prison for life. The whole thing is incomprehensible, unless you believe that Hannah did actually commit this crime.
How did you stumble upon this story? Why now?
After writing a story in 2010 about the wrongful conviction of Anthony Graves, who has since been exonerated, I began hearing from a lot of inmates, lawyers, and other folks about cases that they felt TEXAS MONTHLY should be writing about. Over the course of just a few days last February, I was approached by both a newspaper reporter and then a TV cameraman, who had both covered the Overton case, who urged me to look into it. Once I started reading the case file, I knew this was something I wanted to write about.
What was it like talking to the children? You mentioned it briefly in your story, but how have the kids been handling their mother being in prison?
The evening I spent with the Overton kids was the most moving part of my reporting. They are great, normal, happy, well-adjusted kids. Because they have been brought up in the tight-knit community that their church provides, they seemed relatively unscathed by the whole ordeal. They talked about their mother in an unselfconscious way, as if she was very much present in their lives. I was pretty amazed by them.
What was it like speaking with Hannah Overton? The police, witnesses, and the news painted her as a malicious child killer who grinned as she administered CPR on her dying son. Her friends described her as a loving mother. What did you see when you were with her?
Hannah initially seemed wary of me, I think because of the treatment she had initially received from the media in Corpus Christi. But during our interview, and over the course of a pretty lengthy correspondence, she certainly did not come across as a disturbed person, or as someone capable of committing murder. She honestly just seemed like any other mom. Nothing about her struck me as unusual. She did strike me as very trusting, which helped explain to me how she had sat through more than two hours of questioning with a police officer who clearly felt that she was the prime suspect in Andrew’s death and never asked for a lawyer.
Describe your reporting process. Seeing as how this all happened in your absence, how were you able to recreate the events leading up to Andrew’s death without crossing any narrative boundaries?
I have to annotate nearly every sentence of my stories for our fact checking department, describing where I got my facts. Then a fact checker double-checks the accuracy of what I have written, usually by calling my sources himself. So it’s hard to cross any narrative boundaries. My story was based on the very lengthy trial record as well as extensive interviews.
Was there anyone you wished you could have interviewed to garner a better understanding of the case or of the Overtons?
I was very disappointed that I wasn’t able to interview the prosecutor, Sandra Eastwood, or the investigating officer, Michael Hess. I repeatedly approached them both, but they were not interested in participating in the story. Interviewing them would have been enormously helpful.
Is it likely that the courts will consider lessening her sentence or overturning her conviction completely? What have they been doing since they discovered the prosecution withheld witnesses and important medical documents?
The Court of Criminal Appeals is currently reviewing her case, and could act imminently or not for a few years—we just don’t know for sure. But historically, the CCA has been very pro-prosecution, so I’m not anticipating any dramatic developments (although, of course, I could be wrong). If all else fails, I think Hannah’s appellate attorney will then file an appeal with the federal courts.
If there was anything you could change about your story, or about your research/process, what would it be?
It was difficult having such limited time with Hannah. I was only allowed to interview her once, which is not much time for an article of this length.
What is the most interesting thing you’ve learned from writing this story?
Until working on this story, I had no idea that you could die from eating too much salt.
What do you hope people will take away from your story? What effect do you wish it will have on the community?
I think it’s important to recognize that things may not be as they seem—for example, that something as innocuous as a baby monitor in a kid’s room can look sinister when put in a particular context. I hope that the story causes people to take a second look at Hannah’s case.