Hannah’s Prayer

Hannah Overton, a Corpus Christi mother of five, was sentenced to life in 2007 for poisoning her soon-to-be adoptive son. This spring, she was finally granted a hearing to reexamine the evidence in her case. Will it be enough to prove her claims of innocence?
Hannahs Prayer
Photographs by Corpus Christi Caller-Times/Todd Yates

On October 2, 2006, four-year-old foster child Andrew Burd was brought to a Corpus Christi urgent care clinic in cardiac arrest. He had fallen suddenly and acutely ill that afternoon. His soon-to-be adoptive mother, Hannah Overton, had frantically administered CPR, and medical personnel tried to revive him, but it was too late—Andrew soon lapsed into a coma. During the next 24 hours, bruises emerged on his body, and his brain began to hemorrhage. The following evening, shortly after nine o’clock, he died. Blood tests revealed that he had an unusually high amount of sodium in his blood—so high, in fact, that doctors were able to determine that his death had been caused by ingesting an excessive amount of salt.

Investigators quickly zeroed in on Hannah, who had been with Andrew when he fell ill. The bruises were seen as evidence of abuse, the hemorrhaging as proof of a head injury, and the elevated blood sodium as the result of deliberate poisoning. The churchgoing mother of five—who had no history of abuse or violence and no previous arrests—was charged with capital murder. Prosecutors argued that she had snapped under the demands of parenting and forced Andrew to eat a large quantity of salt. Hannah insisted that she had not poisoned the boy and refused all plea deals. After a sensational trial the following year, she was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Extensive and often inaccurate local media coverage pilloried Hannah before and during her trial. Four years later, when she submitted a writ of habeas corpus—a last-ditch effort to persuade the courts to review her claims of innocence—the case remained divisive. Nueces County district judge Jose Longoria, who oversaw her 2007 trial, immediately ruled that the application for the writ was “without merit.” Yet questions about her conviction persisted. Her appellate attorney, Cynthia Orr, had found evidence that challenged many of the state’s assumptions at trial, and additional evidence suggested that Andrew had suffered from an undiagnosed eating disorder called pica, which is characterized by a desire to consume inappropriate items with little or no nutritional value, like salt. (An article I wrote in the January issue of TEXAS MONTHLY examined the case extensively.)

Then, in February of this year, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals handed down an unexpected ruling, ordering that Hannah’s claims of innocence be examined. The decision came in the wake of a number of high-profile DNA exonerations and reflected the court’s growing unease with the capriciousness of scientific opinion in the courtroom. In a rebuke to Judge Longoria, the court ordered him to hold an evidentiary hearing, at which the defense would be allowed to present new evidence. In a rare written statement, Judge Cathy Cochran asserted that “the judiciary must be ever vigilant to ensure that verdicts in criminal cases are based solely upon reliable, relevant scientific evidence—scientific evidence that will hold up under later scrutiny.”

The hearing got under way on April 23 in the same Corpus Christi courtroom where Hannah stood trial five years earlier. As at the original proceedings, she sat quietly at the defense table, only this time she wore a gray county jail jumpsuit and was constrained by leg irons. She occasionally scribbled notes on a yellow legal pad as an overflow crowd of reporters and supporters—mostly members of her church, Calvary Chapel of the Coastlands—filled the benches behind her. Her husband, Larry, who has been raising their children by himself, leaned forward so as not to miss a word.

Moments before the hearing began, Hannah wiped away tears with a white handkerchief. She was flanked by a formidable new team of lawyers, led by Orr, a San Antonio criminal defense attorney who in 2001 obtained the first confession of error by the State of Texas in a death penalty case. Orr was joined by the legendary Gerry Goldstein, who has represented clients as diverse as Hunter S. Thompson and Manuel Noriega, and by John Raley, of the Houston firm Raley & Bowick, whose 6-year battle with the Williamson County district attorney’s office over DNA testing resulted in the recent exoneration of Michael Morton after nearly 25 years behind bars for murder. All three attorneys took the case pro bono. “I’ve never met anyone less capable of harming a child,” Raley told me.

Although Hannah’s trial had drawn tremendous local media attention, the hearing—which was slated to explore the arcane science of salt poisoning—was expected to be short and soporific. But as testimony stretched into a second week, Hannah’s fate dominated local TV news broadcasts. The proceedings became increasingly dramatic, punctuated by revelations about everything from missing evidence to lead prosecutor Sandra Eastwood’s personal life and at one point devolving into a shouting match. David Jones, a lawyer who had served on Hannah’s original team, wept on the stand as he confessed that he had done an inadequate job of representing her. “I failed miserably,” he said, looking at Hannah, who struggled to keep her composure. “There’s probably not a day since this verdict that I haven’t—that I don’t regret not spending more time on this case.” He bowed his head as he was overcome with emotion. “I failed, and I am so sorry,” he whispered.

When Hannah was tried for capital murder, the state needed to prove one of two scenarios to win a conviction: that Hannah had deliberately made Andrew ingest a lethal amount of salt or that she had purposely neglected to get him timely medical attention when he became ill, knowing that this would kill him. In an evidentiary hearing, the burden of proof rests on the defense, and so Hannah’s attorneys now sought to have her conviction overturned by demonstrating three points: that the medical opinions on which her conviction rested were incorrect; that critical, and potentially exculpatory, evidence had been withheld from the defense, depriving her of a fair trial; and that her previous lawyers had not provided her with effective representation. Prosecutors Doug Norman and Bill Ainsworth quickly pushed back, arguing that

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