A month after the conclusion of the dramatic, six-day evidentiary hearing held in the capital murder case of Hannah Overton, state district judge Jose Longoria has issued his recommendations to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. In a fourteen-page opinion issued late in the day on Thursday, Longoria stated that he saw no new evidence that would have altered the outcome of Hannah’s trial. “The Court concludes that all of the supposedly newly-discovered evidence actually mentioned in Overton’s application for writ was clearly known and discussed at the time of trial,” he wrote (PDF).
A Corpus Christi homemaker and mother of five, Hannah was arrested after Andrew Burd—a four-year-old foster child whom she and her husband were in the process of adopting—mysteriously died in 2006 of a rare case of “salt poisoning.” Hannah, who had no history with CPS, no previous 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 forced Andrew to eat 23 teaspoons of salt. After a sensational trial, she was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
In an article I wrote for TEXAS MONTHLY in January, I explored the many inconsistencies in the state’s case. Prosecutors had never been able to explain, for example, 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 him to eat a large quantity of salt. They had also discounted evidence suggesting that Andrew had an undiagnosed eating disorder called “pica,” which is characterized by a desire to consume inappropriate things, like salt. And they were never able to establish a plausible motive.
In February, after San Antonio attorney Cynthia Orr filed a writ of habeas corpus, arguing that newly-discovered evidence showed that Andrew had likely died after consuming an excessive amount of salt on his own, the Court of Criminal Appeals took the dramatic step of ordering that Hannah’s claims of actual innocence be examined. Judge Longoria, who oversaw Hannah’s 2006 trial, was tasked with holding the hearing and subsequently presenting his recommendations to the high court.
Hannah’s attorneys spent much of the April hearing—described in depth in our June issue—putting on compelling testimony which suggested that the science upon which Hannah’s conviction rested was faulty, and that critical evidence had been withheld from the defense at trial. But in yesterday’s opinion, Longoria rejected those claims one by one, siding with the state, arguing that much of this evidence was, or should have been, known to the defense at trial and that Hannah had been capably represented by her attorneys.
Longoria made national headlines last year when he sentenced a mother to five years’ probation for spanking her two-year-old. In that case, he admonished defendant Rosalina Gonzales, saying, “You don’t spank children today. In the old days, maybe we got spanked, but there was a different quarrel. You don’t spank children. You understand?”
The Court of Criminal Appeals must now render a ruling in Hannah’s case, though there is no deadline for the high court to do so. The judges will take Longoria’s recommendations into consideration and will also evaluate the evidence presented at the hearing. It may do one of three things: allow Hannah’s conviction to stand, order a new trial, or overturn her conviction, which would bring about her release.