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Hannah Overton

Other Texas Cases with Female Exonerees
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On October 2, 2006, 29-year-old Hannah Overton and her husband, Larry brought Andrew Burd, their four-year-old foster son whom they were in the process of adopting, to a hospital in Corpus Christi, Texas after the boy stopped breathing. The boy was diagnosed with a toxic salt overdose and died the following day.

Ten days later, the Overtons were arrested on charges of capital murder. Prosecutors said Hannah forced the boy to drink water laced with Cajun spices as punishment for misbehaving. The prosecution claimed the boy vomited and was in and out of consciousness, but the couple waited nearly three hours before seeking medical help.

Police said that one of Overton’s five biological children told investigators that Hannah watched Andrew on a security camera in a bedroom and used food and pepper as a form of punishment. A neighbor told police that Hannah called her about 3 p.m. that day and asked her to watch one of her children because Andrew was intentionally vomiting and defecating and “smearing it everywhere.” The neighbor said Hannah claimed Andrew was vomiting and defecating not because he was sick, but “to get to me.”

The Overtons were granted separate trials. Hannah went to trial in Nueces County Criminal District Court in August 2007. The neighbor, Kathryn Haller, testified that “Hannah said, ‘He's not sick. He’s doing it to try to get to me.’” Haller also said that Overton told her that Andrew had thrown his feces at her earlier, that he threatened to smear it as he had the night before, and that he had vomited. Haller said Overton was afraid her younger child, Sebastian, would get into the mess Andrew had created, so she asked Haller to watch Sebastian.

The county medical examiner testified that the boy died of salt poisoning and appeared to have blunt head trauma.

Dr. Alexandre Rotta, who treated the boy when he was brought to the hospital, testified that Hannah told him Andrew had eaten a bowl of chili, and that when he asked for more and threw a fit she gave him a glass of water with chili powder in it. Rotta testified that tests of Andrew’s blood showed a sodium level higher than he had ever seen before. Rotta also testified that he believed the child would have survived if he had been treated before suffering cardiac arrest, although Rotta did not see the boy until many hours after he was first brought to the hospital.

Overton, a former private-duty nurse, testified in her own defense and said that Andrew was “obsessed with eating” and ate more than her other children at every meal. She told the jury that his obsession was getting worse—that he was eating off of the floor, getting into the garbage, and even eating the cat’s food. Overton testified that Andrew would become upset whenever she prevented him from eating what he wanted, and that she had reported his excessive and inappropriate eating activity to the adoption supervisor, who suggested that he might have an eating disorder.

She said that on the day of the incident, after feeding the children their breakfast, she fell asleep while they were watching cartoons. When she awoke, Andrew was in the pantry eating something, but she couldn’t recall what it was. She said she put him in a timeout for three minutes and Andrew threw a tantrum, defecated in his pants, and threw his feces at her—behavior that had occurred in the past. Overton said she cleaned him up and changed his clothes, but he defecated again and smeared it on the floor.

Overton said she relented and reheated some leftover soup and chili mixture. She said her husband came home and they left for an appointment with her chiropractor for a treatment for a back injury. When they returned home, her husband went back to work and Andrew complained he was hungry.

Overton said that after the boy began crying, she gave him more chili with Cajun seasoning added to it. When she refused his demand for a second serving, he threatened to defecate on her. Overton testified that she decided to give him a cup of water with “a couple of sprinkles” of the Cajun seasoning so that he would get the flavor she thought he wanted and would settle down. Overton said she filled a cup full of water and then poured some out because she thought it was too much. She said she put the mixture in a cup and Andrew drank it, but then demanded more chili and began to throw a fit.

She told the jury that after about a 20-minute tantrum, Andrew stumbled to the floor, said he was cold, and vomited. Overton testified she thought “that he had gotten himself so worked up that he threw up.” She telephoned her husband and told him to come home, but before he arrived, Andrew began to shake, so she wrapped him in a blanket and put him into his bed with a heating pad.

After consulting her intermediate EMT course book, Overton said she thought might have been “in some sort of shock,” but she was not overly concerned because this overwrought behavior had happened on prior occasions. She and her husband put Andrew into a warm bath and she used a nebulizer on him because his breathing sounded congested. They took him out of the bath and dressed him. Although his vital signs were normal, he was moaning.

When his breathing became abnormal and Andrew became less responsive, the couple drove Andrew to an urgent care center. On the way, he stopped breathing and Overton began CPR. The boy vomited into her mouth and began breathing again. When they were getting out of the car in the parking lot of the urgent care center, he stopped breathing again, she said.

Several family friends testified and confirmed that Andrew seem to have an insatiable appetite. A member of the Overton’s church told the jury they had to hide trashcans from the boy.

On September 7, 2007, the jury convicted Overton of capital murder. The jury was polled and the jurors said their conviction as based on the failure of the couple to seek prompt medical attention—not because she had force-fed the boy the water and spice mixture.

Overton was sentenced to life in prison without parole. In 2008, her husband pled no contest to a reduced charge of criminally negligent homicide and was sentenced to deferred adjudication for five years, which allowed him to care for their children. His conviction was vacated and dismissed in 2013, after he successfully completed the probationary period.
 
Overton’s conviction and sentence were upheld on appeal. In 2011, Overton’s appellate attorney, Cynthia Orr, filed a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus seeking a new trial.

The petition claimed that the prosecution had failed to disclose to Overton’s trial lawyers evidence that the salt level of Andrew’s stomach contents when he arrived at the urgent care center was 48 milliequivalents per liter. This was inconsistent with the state’s accusation that she had just force fed him sodium raising his blood sodium level to 245 milliequivalents per liter. The higher level recorded later, the defense contended, was the result of fluids and sodium medicines that were given to Andrew as part of the efforts to save his life.

The defense said that when the boy was first taken to Driscoll Urgent Care Center, he was given a saline IV. Andrew was then transported to Spohn Hospital. There, Andrew went into cardiac arrest. He also was given another saline IV as well as sodium bicarbonate. Andrew was then transferred to Driscoll Children’s hospital where he was again given a saline IV and sodium bicarbonate and where Rotta saw the boy for the first time. Andrew went into cardiac arrest again and was placed on a ventilator. By the time Rotta saw Andrew, the boy had been subjected to considerable life-saving measures that included the continuous use of saline IVs, epinephrine and sodium bicarbonate. The high level of sodium detected at Spohn Hospital was not immediately reported to doctors at Driscoll Children’s Hospital, so that the Andrew was given more sodium.

Moreover, the petition claimed that Overton’s trial lawyers had provided a constitutionally inadequate legal defense by failing to call an expert witness, Dr. Michael Moritz, who could have testified that the boy was not poisoned by Overton and likely had died because of accidental self-initiated consumption earlier. The witness had been interviewed under oath by the defense and prosecution during the trial, but was not called to testify and the recording of his deposition was not presented to the jury.

The petition also included a letter from Anna Jimenez, who had been one of the two prosecutors at Overton’s trial. She said that she believed the lead prosecutor on the case, Sandra Eastwood, had withheld evidence favorable to Overton’s defense. In 2010, before the petition was filed, Jimenez as appointed District Attorney and had fired Eastwood for unrelated reasons. She ran for election in November 2010 and left the office after she was defeated by Mark Skurka.

 “I am writing this letter because I do believe that an injustice has been done. I do not believe there was sufficient evidence to indicate that Hannah Overton intentionally killed Andrew Burd,” Jimenez wrote. “It is because I witnessed Sandra Eastwood's behavior before, during and after trial that I fear she may have purposely withheld evidence that may have been favorable to Hannah Overton's defense.”

The petition said evidence suggested that Andrew's death was linked to a genetic disorder called Prader-Willi syndrome, which can cause children to eat bizarre objects.

District Judge Jose Longoria, who presided over Overton’s trial, dismissed the petition the same day it was filed. Orr appealed and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ordered Longoria to hold an evidentiary hearing.

During several days of testimony, Overton’s lawyers conceded they had failed to provide an adequate legal defense by failing to call Moritz, an expert on hypernatremia—a medical condition related to an elevated salt level. Moritz testified that Andrew exhibited symptoms of emotional deprivation syndrome, which is often associated with extreme eating habits.

Moritz also said that the amount of Cajun spices needed to generate a sodium level of more than 250 would be enormously higher than the amount Rotta testified to. Moritz said that Rotta’s failure to evaluate the cause of Andrew’s hypernatremia was a significant oversight.  And Moritz also testified that Overton would have had extreme difficulty in forcing an amount of salt or Cajun spices into Andrew that would have resulted in such a high sodium level, but that if Andrew had a psychological problem, such as emotional deprivation syndrome, he could have consumed that amount voluntarily.

Despite the testimony, the judge denied the writ again. In September 2014, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the trial judge’s finding, granted the writ and ordered a new trial. The appeals court found that Overton’s lawyers had failed to provide an adequate legal defense. The appeals court did not address the claim that the prosecution had concealed evidence of the boy’s comparatively low sodium level when he first arrived at the clinic.

On December 16, 2014, Overton was released on bond pending a retrial. On April 8, 2015, Nueces County District Attorney Mark Skurka dismissed the charge. He said the decision was “a result of a myriad of factors which came about after a careful review of the previous trial, re-interviewing some of the key witnesses, consulting with some of the medical experts involved in the case, (and) reviewing evidence adduced at recent hearings.”

On May 10, 2017, Overton received a finding of factual innocence based on a motion by Nueces County District Attorney Mark Gonzalez.

Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 4/10/2015
Last Updated: 5/12/2017
State:Texas
County:Nueces
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2006
Convicted:2007
Exonerated:2015
Sentence:Life without parole
Race:Caucasian
Sex:Female
Age at the date of crime:29
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No