Texas mom Hannah Overton, who began serving a life-without-parole sentence in 2007 after jurors convicted her of killing her 4-year-old foster son by giving him large amounts of salt, may be innocent, according to a prosecutor in the case.
Overton’s case gained publicity because of prosecutors’ conclusions that Andrew Burd, who was being adopted from a background of drug use and abuse by his birth mother, died because he had ingested too much Zatarain’s Cajun Seasoning.
But one of the prosecutors, Anna Maria Jimenez, now has submitted a letter to an appellate court as part of a defense request for a new hearing. Jimenez says 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 defense attorney Cynthia 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, however, 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 that point 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, said 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.
Jimenez’ statement is included in a pleading Orr has submitted to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals regarding the case.
Orr told the San Antonio newspaper, “Evidence discovered in the prosecution files reveals that Andy’s stomach contents when he arrived at Driscoll Urgent Care was a low 48 (salt level).”
“They (prosecutors) knew all this stuff. It’s shocking.”
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.
Jimenez was appointed district attorney following the departure of former District Attorney Carlos Valdez last year. She ultimately dismissed Eastwood last year for other unrelated behavior, according to reports.
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.
The death of Burd originally was blamed on hypernatremia, or sodium intoxication, which is both hard to diagnose and harder to treat.
“When Andrew first began exhibiting symptoms of vomiting and getting chills Hannah started treating him, unaware of what was really wrong. Over the next hour and a half Andrew’s symptoms began to grow worse as would be expected from someone experiencing hypernatremia. Once Hannah noticed the changes in his condition, she and her husband decided to rush Andrew to an urgent care clinic,” the website explains.
The website raises other allegations about the behavior of investigators, including an allegedly false affidavit filed by Child Protective Services and a report from a key physician who allegedly was not allowed to testify because his expert opinion was that the death was an accident.
The group has petitioned Texas Gov. Rick Perry on Overton’s behalf, complained about prosecutorial misconduct and worked to keep the children with their father.
Hannah’s husband, Larry, took a plea bargain that resulted in probation so he would be able to continue to care for the children.
The case has been highlighted on ABC’s “20/20” program.
Hoffman previously told WND testimony from Dr. Edgar Cortes, the pediatrician who had seen Burd multiple times, was excluded from the trial. Cortes also was the physician who treated Andrew when the Overtons’ realized something was wrong and rushed him to the hospital.
Cortes told the television program that the child had problems that the family was trying to address.
When Burd moved in with the Overton family, CPS files on the boy’s health were not complete, and Hannah Overton had noticed health and behavioral issues that she had discussed with the adoption agency.
“Andrew also fit the classic mold of a child suffering Emotional Deficit Syndrome, also known as Reactive Attachment Disorder. This is becoming better known among foster children. He fit all of the 10 signs of this disorder perfectly,” the website said.
One of the manifestations of the boy’s problems was hoarding food and demanding to be fed immediately after a meal, the website says. Hannah Overton sought ways to modify the behavior, first trying a dose of lemon on food in the hope he would dislike it. He loved it. Then she tried the Cajun seasoning.
“She gave one or two small shakes onto the soup, he wanted more and started to get upset again and was grabbing at the container in her hand spilling it in the kitchen . … She thought if he wanted the flavor, she could give him a bit of the flavor in water instead of giving him more food. She put two shakes into a tumbler and then poured that into a small sippy cup, put on the top and let him drink that,” the supporters reported.
The devout Christian couple had no criminal history, but to investigators, CPS workers and prosecutors the case was clear, and the arrest warrants painted the Overton home as a house of horrors.
Eastwood later accused Hannah of “torture.”
Jurors were not given the option of a lesser charge, at Eastwood’s insistence, and later told the television program they didn’t think Hannah Overton intended to harm the child. They convicted her, they said, because they were told it was an offense to “withhold” treatment.
Juror Margaret Warfield, a school teacher, later filed an affidavit, according to the San Antonio Express-News, stating, “It seemed to me, based on the wording of the charge, that we had no choice but to find her guilty of capital murder. … I do not believe that Mrs. Overton intended to kill Andrew. I do not believe that Mrs. Overton knew that her actions (or lack thereof) would kill Andrew Burd.”