(NEW YORK) — After five long years in jail, a Texas court could overturn Hannah Overton’s murder conviction soon, allowing her to finally be reunited with her five children.
“Being children, they don’t understand the length of how long this all can take … and they ask me, ‘Are you going to be home for this birthday?’ … and it’s very hard to not know [when] I will be,” she said. “We’re praying that this is the last birthday that I’m not there.”
In 2007, Overton, now 35, was handed a sentence of life in prison for the 2006 salt poisoning death of a 4-year-old she was trying to adopt, Andrew Burd. But in the years since her conviction, questions have been raised about whether prosecutors were overzealous in their efforts to convict Overton, failing to present the jury with expert testimony and evidence that might have made a difference in the outcome of the trial.
Former prosecutor Sandra Eastwood, “at best, jumped to conclusions and didn’t take the time and energy to find the truth,” Overton told 20/20 in a recent interview.
At worst, Overton added, Eastwood “went along with a lie to win the case.”
Eastwood, who spoke to 20/20 in 2008 and stood by her handling of the Overton case, declined a request for a new interview through her attorney. Overton also was interviewed in 2008, in prison, for an episode of 20/20.
After an appeals hearing earlier this year, Overton’s fate now rests in the hands of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which could decide either to free Hannah, order a new trial, or reject her appeal.
At Overton’s original trial in 2007, the prosecution portrayed her as a mother who had lost control. Frustrated with a naughty child, prosecutors said, she tried to punish him with seasoning mixed in water.
The defense presented the jury with a medical mystery. They suggested that Andrew might have had pica, an eating disorder characterized by an obsessive appetite and that Andrew accidentally poisoned himself by consuming a fatal amount of sodium.
Teachers and babysitters said they had seen Andrew’s bizarre habits too. The day Andrew died, Overton said she found him in the kitchen pantry but could not determine what he had consumed, if anything.
To find Overton guilty, jurors had to believe either of two scenarios — that Overton force-fed Andrew salt knowing it would kill him or that she neglected to get medical help fast enough knowing that it would kill him.
At Overton’s appeals hearing this past February, the judge heard testimony from two witnesses who appeared on 20/20‘s original report saying they believed Andrew’s death was accidental, not murder. Neither the prosecution nor the defense called either of the doctors to the stand during Hannah’s trial in 2007.
Dr. Edgar Cortes, a pediatrician, had seen Andrew as a patient back in 2005, before he went to live with the Overton family. He told 20/20 that he informed the prosecutor, Eastwood, that he saw speech and developmental problems and was surprised to learn that prosecutors described him at trial as being “normal.” During February’s hearing, he reiterated that position in response to questions from Hannah’s attorney, Cynthia Hujar-Orr.
“Do these developmental delays make him younger, make him in danger of accidentally harming himself by eating bad things?” Hujar-Orr asked.
“Yes,” Cortes said.
“And was [Eastwood] aware of that link to the cognitive and developmental?” Hujar-Orr asked.
“I hope so,” Cortes said. “I think that if we’re going to be fair, if we’re going to be just, we have to take all of the circumstances into consideration.”
Trying to determine exactly what happened to Andrew that day has been a challenge for Overton’s defense teams now and then. Based on limited health records presented at trial, it appeared Andrew’s status within the foster care system meant that he was never under one doctor’s care for long. Any serious underlying conditions that could have made him susceptible to the salt intoxication that day remain unknown.
But one witness for the defense, Dr. Michael Moritz, a leading expert on salt poisoning at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, believes that, based on similar cases of children in foster care exhibiting behavioral issues and evidence of pica, he knows what happened to Andrew that day.
In his 2008 interview with ABC News, Moritz said, “I think [Andrew] was in one of his feeding binges. He was having a tantrum, and he was unsupervised for a brief period of time, and I believe that he ingested a large amount of salt.”
In court, Moritz testified that he still believed it was a case of acute poisoning.
Furthermore, Moritz said he didn’t believe Overton knew that Andrew was dying and that even if she had rushed to the hospital immediately, the child may not have survived.
“There is literature showing that even with today’s medical technology, under the best medical care, even when it happens in the hospital, you die,” Moritz told the court. “This is not necessarily preventable.”
Prosecution experts, however, disagreed.
Heated Testimony at Hearing
Eastwood’s fragile and often soft-spoken presentation was in stark contrast to her demeanor when she spoke to 20/20 in 2008.
“I feel very confident that I did the right thing in presenting the evidence and having her convicted,” Eastwood said.
At the time, she remained convinced that Hannah Overton knew or should have known that withholding medical treatment would kill Andrew.
“I think she was angry, enraged, with wanting to punish him and hurt him and then realized, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve really hurt him.'” she said.
The defense has argued that evidence pertaining to Andrew’s gastric content was deliberately kept from Overton’s trial attorneys.
The judge at the February hearing — who was the same judge who presided over the original 2007 case — ultimately concluded that Overton did not deserve a new trial based on the arguments presented at the hearing, but the final decision lies with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Overton said she is confident the higher court will make the right call.
“I do believe that the Court of Criminal Appeals, when they look at the record, they will see that the record does not support [the judge’s] decision,” she said.
In a statement to 20/20, Eastwood’s lawyer pointed out that every court that has considered Overton’s claims of prosecutorial misconduct has found insufficient evidence to prove the allegations. Eastwood has also filed a motion for sanctions against Hannah Overton’s attorneys for what she says are false allegations and false testimony. Additionally, the state bar and the state attorney general declined to pursue any disciplinary actions against Eastwood after their own investigations.
Andrew would have celebrated his 10th birthday this past summer.
Overton told 20/20 in 2008 that she did not regret trying to adopt Andrew.
“I wouldn’t take that away,” she said. “He had brothers and sisters and a mommy and daddy, what he called his forever family, because we had to go through a lot of pain since then. It’s not fair to him. Or to us.”
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Jennifer Graham, Deseret News