In a stunning development in the case of Hannah Overton, a Texas woman sentenced to life without parole in 2007 after jurors convicted her of killing her 4-year-old foster son by giving him large amounts of salt, an appeals court has ordered the trial court to hear new evidence that may suggest her innocence.
The ruling came this week from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which decided on an application for a writ of habeas corpus that a new hearing is required.
“Applicant has alleged facts that, if true, might entitle her to relief,” the higher court concluded. “The trial court is the appropriate forum for findings of fact.”
“The trial court shall make findings of fact as to whether the applicant is actually innocent based upon newly discovered evidence. The trial court shall also make findings of fact as to whether the performance of applicant’s trial attorney was deficient, and, if so, whether counsel’s deficient performance prejudiced applicant. The trial court shall also make findings of fact as to whether the state failed to turn over material, exculpatory evidence to the defense,” the order said.
In an unusual special concurrence for such a move by the court, one of the judges specifically warned that the scientific evidence used in the conviction of Overton needs to be clear and solid.
“This appears to be a capital-murder conviction that depends, in many respects, upon the scientific validity and accuracy of the medical testimony offered into evidence at the original trial,” the ruling said.
“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 statement said.
“The problem in this case … is not that the science itself has evolved, but that it is alleged that the scientific testimony at the original trial was not fully informed and did not take into account all of the scientific evidence now available.”
The appeals court handed down a list of specifics concern the evidence, telling the trial court needs to explore “in detail” the discrepancy between the sodium levels found in the child victim’s stomach and that found in his blood. It also needs to assess the “mathematical accuracy of the expert testimony concerning the amount of Zatarain’s seasoning … necessary to raise the victim’s blood sodium level.”
The trial also needs to review what scientific studies “support the state’s theory.”
“Fairness both to the applicant who is serving a sentence of life without parole and to the state and the memory of the child victim demands that our verdicts will withstand the test of time such that the guilty are punished and the innocent are not,” the higher court said.
Texas Monthly executive editor Pamela Colloff had done an extensive examination of the case, and wrote about her findings.
In the case, Overton was arrested and later convicted in the death of Andrew Burd, a 4-year-old foster child she and her husband were adopting. He reportedly died of salt poisoning and “prosecutors painted a macabre portrait” of the woman, arguing “she snapped under the demands of parenting and forced Andrew to eat 23 teaspoons of salt.”
But Colloff reported, “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. … And they were never able to establish a plausible motive.”
The attorney now working on her case is Cynthia Orr of San Antonio, who has worked with the Innocence Project which advocates on behalf of those apparently wrongly convicted.
Orr told the Texas Monthly that there will be a hearing set, and she will put on witnesses and evidence that will establish scientifically “what really occurred in this case.”
“At the end of that hearing, I expect that Hannah will be vindicated and returned to her husband and family,” she told Texas Monthly.
The case originally attracted publicity because of prosecutors’ claims that Burd died because he had ingested too much Zatarain’s Cajun Seasoning.
But months ago, one of the prosecutors, Anna Maria Jimenez, submitted a letter to an appellate court as part of a defense request for a new hearing. Jimenez said defense lawyers did not receive a doctor’s report in the case documentation showing Burd did not have high salt levels in his system.
The report was found in the prosecution file by Orr as part of her appeal preparations. It stated that studies by Dr. Fernandez, a medical examiner, to assess the level of sodium chloride showed “there was an indication that the gastric contents of Andrew Burd did not have a high sodium chloride level.”
According to Jimenez the report was missing from the file that the prosecution team had provided to a physician for evaluation before testifying in the case. It also was not given to the defense, which would have been a standard procedure for such exculpatory evidence in criminal cases.
“I am writing this letter because I do believe that an injustice has been done. I do not believe that there was sufficient evidence to indicate that Hannah Overton intentionally killed Andrew Burd,” wrote Jimenez, who was a deputy in the original prosecution.
In the letter, Jimenez, who later served as district attorney in Nueces County, leveled several criticisms at Sandra Eastwood, the lead prosecutor in the Overton case.
The theory at trial was that Overton “had poisoned Andrew with Zatarain Cajun Spice,” she wrote.
The startling new revelation came after Orr, working on the appeal, requested of Jimenez permission to access the prosecution’s entire file in the case.
“I agreed to reserve the conference room for Ms. Orr and her assistant, and I made the entire file available to her. During their viewing of the file, Ms. Orr discovered a report from Dr. Fernandez, the medical examiner, that had not been made available to the defense,” Jimenez wrote.
“The report had studies that Dr. Fernandez had performed on various items to determine what a sodium chloride level might be in certain items were present. The test included a sample of the gastric content of Andrew Burd,” she said.
But the report did not confirm a high salt presence.
Pastor Doug Hoffman, of Calvary Chapel of the Coastlands, the Overtons’ home church, told WND earlier the church family was pleased “things are finally coming to light and we’re very hopeful the court will give relief.”
He said the church continues to help watch the Overtons’ children, and members continue praying for vindication for Hannah.
Overton, who has five other children, has maintained her innocence throughout. She has insisted she did nothing to hurt the 4-year-old, who died in 2006.
The family had been dealing with several behavioral issues and an eating disorder that involved consuming strange objects, a condition attributed to the alcohol, crack cocaine and methamphetamine use of his birth mother before the boy was born.
The background of the case is profiled on the FreeHannah.com website, which has been set up by Overton’s supporters to provide information about the case and lobby on her behalf.