Nine years after Hannah Overton’s nightmarish journey through the criminal justice system began, it ended just as abruptly, yesterday afternoon, when Nueces County District Attorney Mark Skurka called her attorney, Cynthia Orr, to inform her that he had made a motion to dismiss capital murder charges against her.
As recently as December—when Hannah (above, right) was released from prison after an appellate court overturned her conviction—the DA’s office had vowed to try her again for the 2006 death of four-year-old Andrew Byrd. At her bail hearing shortly before Christmas, prosecutors argued that she posed such a grave risk to her children that she should only be allowed to see them during supervised visits. (The presiding judge did not agree and released her with no such restrictions.) Yet despite prosecutors’ determination this winter to retry Hannah, Skurka explained to Orr yesterday that he decided to dismiss charges after spending the past few months thoroughly reinvestigating the case. It was an astonishing turn of events, given that DAs rarely walk away from cases that their offices have previously won convictions in—even troubled cases that are later overturned by higher courts.
A Corpus Christi homemaker and mother of five, Hannah was convicted of capital murder in 2007 for the death of Andrew, whom she and her husband had been in the process of adopting. The four-year-old died on October 3, 2006, in a rare and mystifying case of salt poisoning, which prosecutors said resulted from Hannah force-feeding him salt as punishment for bad behavior. Yet multiple inconsistencies and errors plagued the state’s case. Evidence strongly suggested Andrew had an undiagnosed eating disorder called “pica,” which is characterized by a desire to consume non-food items and inappropriate substances, like salt. Analysis of the contents of Andrew’s stomach, which was not presented at trial, indicated Andrew likely ingested too much salt on his own earlier in the day that he fell ill. Prosecutors had never been able to establish a plausible motive for why Hannah—who had no criminal record or history of violence—would murder a child. Nor had they been able to show how Hannah, who was six months pregnant and suffering from whiplash at the time of Andrew’s death, had been able to force the boy to consume a lethal 23 teaspoons of salt, as the prosecution suggested. In September 2014, her conviction was overturned by the Court of Criminal Appeals.
Though Hannah was released from prison in December and reunited with her children, the battle appeared to have just begun. Skurka vowed to retry Hannah on capital murder charges and had his prosecutors begin to prepare for trial. “No jury, no trial judge, and no appellate court has ever found that defendant Hannah Overton is not responsible for the death of Andrew Burd,” he told reporters.
Ever since then, Orr has put in long hours working to show the DA’s office that it no longer had a case. In multiple conversations in person and by phone with Skurka and his prosecutors over the past few months, Orr walked them through the complex scientific evidence in the case, explaining how their assumptions had been obliterated during a six-day evidentiary hearing held in 2012. She also showed how many of their witnesses would be willing to testify for the defense if there was to be a retrial. Most significant among them was the state’s star witness, Dr. Alexandre Rotta, who had treated Andrew on the night he was brought to the hospital in a coma in 2006. Orr revealed that Rotta had recently contacted Hannah’s attorneys to say that her conviction still kept him up at night. Orr showed that he, as well as other key witnesses, could no longer be counted on to uphold the state’s case.
Orr’s diligence paid off. In a statement released late this afternoon, Skurka explained, “As district attorney, I recognize the charges against Mrs. Overton are very serious. Therefore, since the reversal by the Court of Criminal Appeals based on mistakes made by her defense counsel during her first trial, our office has diligently reviewed the facts and circumstances of the case. This decision was a result of a myriad of factors, which came about after a careful review of the previous trial, reinterviewing some of the key witnesses, consulting with some of the medical experts involved in the case, reviewing evidence adduced at recent hearings, and staffing the case with the current prosecutors assigned to the case. After this review, I exercised prosecutor discretion in dismissing the case.”
When I reached Orr last night, she had nothing but praise for Skurka, who was not the DA when Hannah was prosecuted in 2007. “He’s done the right thing, not the easy thing,” she said. “This is Mr. Skurka acting in the best tradition of his profession—pursing justice, not convictions.”
Orr, of the San Antonio lawfirm Goldstein, Goldstein, and Hilley, has worked for six years on Hannah’s behalf. She has been assisted along the way by her colleague Gerry Goldstein, and by the man who won exoneree Michael Morton his freedom, John Raley, of the Houston firm Raley & Bowick.
“Hannah and her family are relieved and overjoyed,” Orr told me of the tearful phone call she shared with her client and her children this afternoon, during which Hannah was overcome by emotion. “They are still traumatized by the loss of Andy, and now they can finally begin to grieve and heal.”
When I spoke to Raley, he put a finer point on the trauma suffered by Hannah and others like her. “Hannah’s case, like Michael Morton’s, proves that normal, everyday people can be victims of wrongful prosecution,” he said. “People who think that there is no way they could be charged—tomorrow—with a horrible crime are wrong.”
(For a detailed history of Hannah’s case, you can read Pamela Colloff’s comprehensive coverage of the case here.)
(Photo: AP | Corpus Christi Caller-Times, Andrew Mitchell)