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Hannah Overton’s Day in Court

The Corpus Christi mother convicted of murdering her four-year-old foster son has maintained her innocence for eight years, and she finally had a chance to plead her case to Texas’s highest criminal court.

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Dan Winters

Hannah Overton, a Corpus Christi homemaker and mother of five, was arrested in 2006 after Andrew Burd—a four-year-old foster child whom she and her husband were in the process of adopting—mysteriously died of a rare case of “salt poisoning.” Hannah, who had no previous run-ins with CPS, no prior arrests, and no history of violence, was charged with capital murder. Prosecutors painted a macabre portrait, arguing that she snapped under the demands of parenting and force-fed Andrew a lethal amount of salt. After a sensational trial in 2007, she was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

In the seven years since her conviction, Hannah has maintained her innocence, and she and her legal team have fought to have those claims heard by a higher court. Last Wednesday, Hannah was finally given that chance when the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals held oral arguments to determine if she should receive a new trial—a rare instance of the court taking such a close look at a criminal conviction. Its decision to do so comes in the wake of a number of high-profile DNA exonerations and reflects the court’s growing unease with a system that has produced a startling number of wrongful convictions.

In an article I wrote for Texas Monthly  in 2012, I explored the many inconsistencies in the state’s case. Prosecutors had never been able to explain how Hannah—who was six months pregnant and recovering from whiplash at the time of Andrew’s death—had managed to overpower him and force-feed him a large quantity of salt. They had also discounted evidence suggesting that Andrew had an undiagnosed eating disorder that is not uncommon among foster children called “pica,” which involves consuming inappropriate items, like salt. And they were never able to establish a plausible motive. Prosecutors could never explain why—if she had been too overwhelmed by the demands of parenting Andrew—she had not simply terminated the adoption process. 

In the years that followed Hannah’s 2007 conviction, her attorney Cynthia Orr, from the San Antonio law firm Goldstein, Goldstein, and Hilley, was able to raise enough questions about Hannah’s conviction that in 2012, the Court of Criminal Appeals ordered that Overton’s claims of innocence be examined by the trial court. The dramatic, six-day evidentiary hearing that followed in Corpus Christi that April laid bare the many problems of the case and suggested that Hannah’s conviction rested on bad science. But Judge Jose Longoria—who presided over both Hannah’s murder trial and the evidentiary hearing, and who has historically sided with the prosecution in this case—was not swayed and recommended against Hannah’s pleas for a new trial.

That might have been the end of the story. Typically, the CCA upholds judges’ findings in evidentiary hearings. But the high court clearly had some remaining questions, and late last year, it ordered that oral arguments be held in its court in Austin this spring.

The CCA operates differently than a district court. Defendants do not attend oral arguments, for example, so Hannah was not present last Wednesday. But a number of her supporters—her husband, Larry; her mother, Lane; her pastor, Rod Carver; and her extended family, friends, and fellow churchgoers—had made the trip from Corpus Christi to be there. 

Oral arguments before the high court are fast and contentious. The state and the defense each have twenty minutes to make their case, with the defense speaking first; during that allotted time, the judges may interrupt the lawyers and interrogate them. And that’s it, each case gets a total of just forty minutes. Given the complexity of Hannah’s case, there was scant time to explore the two issues that the court wanted the state and the defense to address: whether Hannah’s attorneys should have done things at trial that they didn’t do, and whether the state had failed to disclose exculpatory evidence. 

Orr was only three minutes into her presentation—telling the judges about a container of Andrew’s vomit that had been mislabeled and that Hannah’s defense attorneys had subsequently overlooked—when Judge Cathy Cochran broke in. The vomit, Orr was saying, was the very first fluid that had been collected from Andrew once he began receiving medical attention. “His vomit, collected at Driscoll Urgent Care, was the only unadulterated fluid retained from Andy before medical personnel gave him sodium as part of a routine treatment of course—sodium products like IV drip, epinephrine, sodium bicarbonate, and other measures—” Orr said. 

Cochran leaned forward in her chair. “What is so important about that?” she asked.

The fluid, Orr explained, was critically important because it revealed what Andrew had eaten that afternoon. “It showed that what Hannah Overton told the doctors and the police and testified to at trial was the truth,” Orr said. 

During Hannah’s 2007 murder trial, she took the stand and gave a thorough accounting of her last day with Andrew. That morning, she said, she and Andrew had watched cartoons in bed. She had dozed off, then awoken a short time later to discover that he had slipped out of the room. She had found him standing on a stool in the pantry, she said, near the baking ingredients, having pulled something off the shelf. She could not recall what he had been holding in his hand, but she assumed that he had eaten something. Later, that afternoon, she had fed him some soup with Zatarain’s Creole Seasoning. After Andrew threw a tantrum wanting more, Hannah—who had been trying to teach him to limit his curiously voracious appetite—resorted to sprinkling some Zatarain’s into a sippy cup of water, hoping the taste would appease him.

Prosecutors contended that it was then—that afternoon, when she handed him his sippy cup—that she forced him to choke down a lethal slurry of Zatarain’s (which is high in sodium) and water. But the defense argued that Andrew must have ingested the fatal amount of salt himself, most likely when he was unattended that morning. 

As Orr stood and answered Cochran’s questions, she went on to explain that the vomit collected at the urgent care clinic was low in sodium.

“And what was the significance of that?” pressed Cochran.

The fact that Andrew vomited liquid that was low in sodium when he arrived at the clinic late that afternoon, Orr said, supported Hannah’s story because it suggested that “he ingested [the lethal dose of salt] earlier, on his own.” By the time he reached the clinic, “the sodium that was killing him had already migrated through his body,” Orr said. The vomit showed that “it had left his stomach.” In other words, the scientific evidence, she argued, corroborated what Hannah had told investigators all along: she had never poisoned Andrew with salt.  

Nueces County assistant district attorney Doug Norman immediately took issue with Orr’s logic when it came his turn to address the court. The prosecution had never said that Hannah poisoned Andrew immediately before seeking medical care for him, he said. “That was never our theory,” he said. “Our theory was that he was force-fed several hours before. We don’t know exactly when.” The fact that Andrew’s vomit was low in sodium changed nothing, Norman argued. If anything, he said, it bolstered the state’s case.

Remarkably, he distanced himself from the most damaging charge that prosecutors had made against Hannah at her murder trial: that she had pinched Andrew’s nose, gripped him around his neck, and forced a lethal slurry of salt and water down his throat. “Our main theory was that she did nothing,” Norman told the CCA judges. “She stood there and watched him deteriorate for a significant enough period of time that she knew he wouldn’t survive. . . . She sat there and watched her child die from sodium poisoning.”

“Are you saying that she didn’t feed him the salt?” interjected the court’s presiding judge, Sharon Keller. 

“Well, no, I’m saying—the gastric contents don’t tell you who fed him the salt,” Norman said.

“Right, but are you saying that she fed him the salt . . . or are you saying that she watched him eat the salt himself and did nothing?” Cochran asked. 

“I’m saying however he ingested the sodium, whether she gave it to him, or she didn’t see him take it—” Norman said. 

“So are you saying that it doesn’t matter if he ate the salt all by himself?” Cochran asked. 

“According to her admissions, there was a significant period of time, approximately one and a half to two hours, when she was aware that he was sick before she took him into the hospital,” Norman said.

“The question was, Are you saying that it doesn’t matter [if she force-fed him the salt or not]?” Keller pressed. 

After going back and forth with the judge again, Norman finally answered her question. “I don’t think it matters,” he said.

His answer elicited raised eyebrows from Hannah’s supporters in the courtroom. Technically, Norman was right; according to the unusual wording of the jury charge at Hannah’s trial, jurors had only needed to believe one of two scenarios to find her guilty: that she deliberately made Andrew ingest a lethal amount of salt, or that she purposely neglected to get timely medical attention, knowing that this would kill him. In fact, as the polling of jurors showed after the guilty verdict was handed down, not one of the twelve jurors believed that Hannah had poisoned Andrew, but they had still found her guilty of capital murder “by omission,” or by failure to act.

Still, Norman’s statement was a startling admission from the state. In effect, he had told the state’s highest criminal court that it did not matter if Hannah—who had been indicted and prosecuted for poisoning her son—had actually poisoned him. 

Further questioning from Keller, however, was not very sympathetic to the defense. She questioned why it was that Hannah had not acted faster when Andrew’s “pupils were blown and his skin was cold” as he arrived at the urgent care clinic. Though Orr enumerated the many life-saving measures that Hannah had taken to save Andrew, including giving him CPR en route to the clinic, Keller seemed dubious.

Orr was able to respond to Keller’s concerns directly because she had made a strategic decision; she had split her twenty minutes, so that she could speak before and after the prosecution put on its case. As oral arguments drew to a close, she made many powerful points, demonstrating how Hannah’s defense attorneys had botched the chance to put a critical expert witness—the world’s leading expert on pica—on the stand during Hannah’s trial. But forty minutes was not nearly enough time to delve more deeply into the facts of the case. 

The judges are now evaluating the evidence that was presented during oral arguments. They may choose to do one of three things: allow Hannah’s conviction to stand, send the case back to Nueces County and order a new trial, or overturn her conviction, which would bring about her release. They have been slow to act in this case, but their decision will most likely come before Election Day this November, when the makeup of the court will change. In the meantime, Hannah, Larry, and their five children—who range in age from fifteen to seven—will wait.

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  • Cynthia Robinson

    Bad Science is a big issue. I believe my son’s Autopsy is a ‘bad’ ruling, from SWTMC/Dallas.
    Because of the ‘Suicide’ ruling, I’m fighting a good fight, but because I am poor, my fight is unheard!
    http://www.realcrimes.com (Joshua Robinson)
    I am 99.9% certain that McGregor, Tx police murdered him.

    • Lucy Frost

      Cynthia Robinson, I’m sorry to learn about your son and the legal issues around his death. My condolences. I don’t know anything about your son’s case, but I know that there have been several high profile instances of “bad science” in the Texas criminal justice system, including Hannah’s. Given those situations, I shudder to think of the number of cases there must be where half-baked “science” has played a role.

    • IMRightNURWrong

      CR, denial’s NOT a river in Egypt!

      • Cynthia Robinson

        Denial? What do you know that I don’t?

  • Lucy Frost

    The bigger issue in Hannah’s case was Bad Prosecution, in my opinion, which wasn’t discussed in detail at the TCCA hearing. Fortunately, the justices have all the testimony and evidence on that from the hearing held two years ago.

    The 2nd chair prosecutor in this case, Anna Jimenez, bravely testified for the defence at the evidentiary hearing, saying that the defense attorneys “kept asking and asking and asking” for the vomit. They were never told of its existence or location. Neither was Jimenez.

    If members of the prosecution team didn’t know about the existence of key evidence, how likely is it that the defense was informed?

    The truth was that the vomit did exist. AND it had been tested. AND the test results as documented were favorable to Hannah’s case because they corroborated what she told police — that she’d fed him chili with seasoning, not a “slurry” of Zatarain’s in a sippy cup. AND there were photographs of the test results.

    None of those things were turned over to the defense attorneys, per Judge Longoria’s specific orders for “photographs,” “test results,” “bodily fluids,” etc.

    The State can pretend that Hannah’s attorneys had the opportunity to get the vomit when one saw a mis-labeled paper bag among several other bags. But they can’t say that about the photos or test results.

    Brady doesn’t say that the defense has to run around guessing and finding evidence like it was some kind of Easter egg hunt. The prosecution was ordered to give all the evidence that could be favorable to the accused to the defense. Period.

    Not only is Hannah innocent, but I believe her civil rights were violated by the withholding of evidence that was favorable to her.

    I pray that our highest Texas criminal court does the right thing, in keeping with the movement that is underway to reform and improve our criminal justice system. And I thank God for prosecutors like Anna Jimenez who have the courage of their convictions and are willing to risk their own careers in order to serve justice.

  • RN

    Being in the medical profession she should know better than to feed a child a mixture of water and chili seasoning…..we are educated to know what to much sodium can do to a person. The media has sold you on her innocence. I was a nurse taking care of this child and saw his suffering I wish that someone was showing you what he went through before he died, might make you rethink a thing or two but because he is dead and in the ground we don’t talk about the truth and the truth is ANDREW is the VICTIM he was a dependent little boy who was hurt and now his heart has stopped beating, a life ended way to soon at the hands of his so called mother. Lets all remember Hannah was in the medical field she is not as “dumb” as portrayed.

    • Jeremy Praay

      The amount of suffering that the boy went through has no impact on her guilt or innocence. Why would you suggest that it does, or should? Children with cancer suffer immensely. Should their parents go to prison for it? That type of argument serves only to underline the fact that this is likely a wrongful conviction. A child died and someone needs to pay. That is how tragedies become compounded.

      • IMRightNURWrong

        ZZZZZzzzzz

      • Carmen Burns

        Looks like you missed the point. She is guilty and the suffering she caused that little boy is horrendous.

      • no one

        Suffering enters into the sentencing phase, not the verdict.

    • No one

      I asked a lot of nurses how much sodium they thought would be fatal. Only one knew such a relatively small amount could be fatal. Most guessed at a half a cut or a full cup of table salt.
      I think if she did give him that salt, she was trying to make him throw up as version therapy so he wouldn’t be stuffing himself so much. If that is the case, then she could be charged with abuse, but not with intentional murder.

      • Anne

        Wow you are so crazy making the most dumb excuses for Hannah. I am a mother of three boys and I would never do such a thing to curb their appetite, how unintelligible is your statement.

  • Straski

    Only hindsight or direct knowledge of other people having done wrong by putting spice seasoning in water to feed a child would know not to do it. I know of mothers rolling on top of a child while sleeping and killing the child – should they go to prison for manslaughter? Hindsight is not even 20/20 in the spice in water situation while sleeping with a baby seems pretty cut and dried not to do but many a mother still does it.

  • Lucy Frost

    RN, there is no doubt that Andrew suffered and that his death was tragic. I very much appreciate your heart in caring for him as both a medical professional and a human being.

    The second tragedy that has come from this situation is that the woman who was ready to be Andrew’s forever mom is in prison for life without parole. The 5 brothers and sisters and the father who were ready to be his forever family are suffering the loss of not only Andrew but their mother as well.

    Hannah gave Andrew a sprinkle of Zatarains in a sippy cup of water to appease him after he ate chili seasoned with Zatarains so that he would not overeat and become sick as he had been known to do. There wat not enough salt in that to be a problem at all — and the important part here is that: THE VOMIT PROVED that what she said she had fed him was true.

    I believe the prosecution withheld the existence of that vomit and the test results that showed that the sodium level in it was the same as the sodium in a Wendy’s chili with a sprinkle of Zatarain’s. My guess is that it was withheld precisely because it did not support their theory that she had forced him to eat high amounts of salt.

    The sippy cup — which was mysteriously not taken into evidence from the Overton home even though police had full access to the house — was the type that is designed not to spill. The child has to suck out the liquid. So the idea that Hannah poisoned Andrew and forced a high sodium solution down Andrew’s throat with that sippy cup, as the prosecution posited at trial, holds no water. Because the cup was not taken into evidence, its contents were never tested. So only the vomit could show what he’d just eaten.

    As far as being a medical professional, Hannah had qualified as an EMT 10 years prior. The textbook from that course had no info in it about sodium intoxication. All the experts in this case testified that salt poisoning occurs very, very rarely. None of the docs at the clinic or either hospital had ever encountered it before, nor had the Medical Examiner. If they’d not seen it and it took them hours to figure out what was wrong with Andrew, how would someone with a decade-old EMT certification know?

    Andrew threw up after throwing tantrums all morning and having gotten into the pantry earlier. The Overtons had locked away everything they thought he could get to that would be harmful to him. Who among us would think there was something in our pantry that could be lethal to our child? Hannah and Larry tried to make Andrew comfortable, thinking he had either made himself nauseated by the tantrums or that he was coming down with something. He got sicker and sicker until they realized it was something serious so they drove him to the nearest urgent care clinic because they thought that would be faster than calling an ambulance. That was a 7 minute drive. From the time he first threw up to when he was logged in at the clinic was just over an hour and a half.

    • angered

      RN you need to examine the fact that the family’s pediatrician, Dr. Edgar Cortez repeatedly stated that in his opinion, Andrew’s death was an accident and not deliberately caused.
      (Go on line to the trial portion and you can read his statement) He was not allowed to make his case in the trial for Hanna probably due to the fact that the prosecutor knew that this would give Hanna the greatest chance possible of being acquitted of this crime)

  • Therese Warner

    Well my opinion in this matter is that attorney’s should show ALL the evidence so that a person can have a their day in court that is fair and equal and not playing games with any civilian’s defense whether they are guilty or innocent. And if they can not prove that she definitely did what they seem to assume that she did they need to just show their evidence and leave it to the jury. I do care what happened to little Andrew but it seems to me that a lot of people have reasonable doubt and if she is NOT guilty of this crime than how fair is that to her children as well as Andrew. I believe that Hannah is being unfairly persecuted. Especially if all of the evidence was not shown to the first jury.

    • Cara

      Well obviously her defense attorneys did not use the doctor for a good reason. He had many contradictions to his opinions with Andrew, basically he is a liar. So all the evidence that is proof of her guilt what you gonna say about that? The signs of being force fed all reported in his autopsy, bruises, blunt force trauma!! Explain away, pray away but God he knows the truth.

  • Gunnar Hagen

    She is where she belongs. ….. in prison!

    • Ahmys

      No she is not. She didn’t deserve to spend one day in prison over this. It was an accident. Every parent I know makes assumptions about their child’s health. He was having a tantrum and they assumed that was what was causing him to get sick. Once they realized that wasn’t the case they rushed him to the hospital, and if you only lived 7 minutes away from the hospital you would drive there yourself as well. If you say otherwise you’re fooling yourself. This whole thing is absolutely ridiculous and I pray to God above that she walks come November. I can’t believe anyone would think anything other than this! Good grief!

      • Mae

        Hi RN, thank you so much for posting your actual experience with this poor victim. It’s crazy everytime I look up this case that there are ao many people and blogs standing up for Hannah and basically downing Andrew and making it seem like he killed himself. No Andrew did not kill himself all of the obvious evidence is there, but all Hannah’s followers have made ridiculous excuses for everything too many coincidences and Andrew dead are things I can’t ignore. If you look at her backround she came from a very religiously scary cult like family, get father a killer her grandfather also. Thank you again RN for sharing the truth.

      • Mae

        Wow^^ another psycho that would like to blame poor Andrew and claim this murderess Hannah is innocent!! You are really sick anyone who sticks up for her!!

      • Erica Thomas

        I have made assumptions about my son’s health.when he comes to me saying he’s sick,I give him medication.when I see that his condition is getting worse I take him to the hospital.reading this case and also seeing it I can’t believe she’s in prison. I am not stupid or psycho like some would say, because I support Hannah. If the little boy had pica then his death could have very well been accidentally. This was just a tragedy all around.