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Photo by Lisa Krantz/San Antonio Express-News/Zumapress.com

Second chance

A mother sentenced to life without parole may have another appeal

Issue: "All tied up," Sept. 24, 2011

For four years Hannah Overton, now 35, has been living at Gatesville Women's Prison in Texas, serving the life sentence she received after the mysterious death of her 4-year-old foster child whom she was trying to adopt.

Overton's husband Larry-who pleaded no contest to criminally negligent homicide in 2008 and was sentenced to probation-sounds upbeat and said things are good for him and Hannah, who visit on weekends, and their five children, who see their mom monthly. The difficulty has brought them closer to God and each other, he said.

Despite unsuccessful attempts in 2009 and 2010, the Overtons are again appealing Hannah's high-profile case in which she was accused of intentionally or knowingly poisoning Andrew Burd with salt, but convicted for failing to take him to a medical facility in a timely manner (see "Unknown ingredient," Feb. 23, 2008). Andrew was the child of a drug-abuser with undiagnosed behavioral and eating problems that led him to frequently overeat and vomit.

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Overton, a former licensed vocational nurse, gave Andrew some spicy, salty seasoning dissolved in water, after which he vomited and became cold. She waited until her husband came home, then decided to take him to a medical clinic. Andrew died the next day of hypernatremia, or salt poisoning, as shown by a blood test.

Since Texas law prescribes capital murder charges for the death of children under age 6 and no lesser charge options were provided to the jury, Overton received a sentence of life in prison without parole-but Larry is "pretty confident" his wife will be released in light of medical evidence presented to the court in April.

Overton's appellate counsel, Cynthia Orr, said she has now gained access to evidence that confirms her client did not give Andrew a lethal dose of salt. A lab test of Andrew's stomach contents shows a very low sodium concentration, in contrast to the very high levels in his blood. "If she had forced him to ingest (salt), his stomach sodium levels would have been at the same level or higher (than his blood sodium level)," Orr said. "This basically proves she did not poison him."

Orr is asking the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to appoint a special master for another hearing.

Orr calls the lab evidence "new" and says lead trial prosecutor Sandra Eastwood kept it from the defense during trial. Eastwood presented a different story in a July affidavit: She said the defense had knowledge of the lab results containing Andrew's stomach sodium levels and objected to presenting them at trial because the lab used was not certified by the state of Texas. But lead defense attorney John Gilmore said he did not recall ever hearing about the stomach sodium level.

Eastwood said in the affidavit that Overton's life sentence came because the jury had to choose between giving Overton life imprisonment or letting her go: "The jury in the Hannah Overton case in all likelihood would have returned a verdict on a lesser-included offense had the jurors been given that option." But Anna Jimenez, a former prosecutor who helped convict Overton and who later served as interim district attorney, suggested this past January that Eastwood was at fault: "It is because I witnessed Sandra Eastwood's behavior, during and after the trial that I fear she may have purposefully withheld evidence that may have been favorable to Hannah Overton's defense."

Jimenez instigated an attorney general ethics investigation of Eastwood for matters not related to the Overton case. The attorney general exonerated her.

-Amy McCullough is a journalist living in Mississippi

Listen to Amy McCullough discuss Hannah Overton's case on The World and Everything in It.

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