Evidentiary hearings that could lead to freedom or a new trial for Hannah Overton-the Corpus Christi, Texas, mother imprisoned in 2007 after being accused of salt poisoning her 4-year-old foster child-have concluded in Texas District Court. Those supporting Overton believe the proceedings went in her favor.
Despite earlier unsuccessful attempts for an appeal, Overton was given the opportunity for evidentiary hearings after her attorneys presented lab results they say were withheld at her previous trial, arguing that she received ineffective counsel. (See "Chance for appeal," Feb. 14.)
The death of the child, Andrew Burd, was ruled a homicide from salt poisoning and blunt-force head trauma. During six days of hearings that began last week and concluded on Monday, expert witnesses addressed the lab results of the child's vomit, which showed low levels of salt in his stomach, proving Overton-who said only gave him Cajun seasoning mixed with water-did not poison him.
Expert witnesses also testified to the fact that Burd, the child of a drug user, likely had a disorder causing compulsive eating as well as a rare medical condition that caused him to bruise easily, making it look like he had been abused.
Overton's husband, Larry, said he is "optimistic about what the court may do" and encouraged by the testimony.
"I thought our attorneys did a great job of just explaining what had happened from a medical standpoint," he said. "I think there were some key pieces of evidence that we didn't have at the time that Andrew must have gotten in to something [salty], and there was not anything done that was wrong."
Overton was originally convicted of failing to take Burd to a hospital in a timely manner and was sentenced to life without parole, per Texas law in cases involving the death of children under age 6.
A devout Christian, Overton at the time said she refused to consider submitting lesser included charges to the jury because she did not want to lie or admit to doing something she did not do. Lead attorney Cynthia Orr said Overton received ineffective counsel because she wasn't advised that giving the jury lesser included options wasn't equivalent to admitting guilt.
Overton's supporters believe she was persecuted for her faith and that the media unfavorably portrayed members of her Corpus Christi church, Calvary Chapel of the Coastlands. The Overtons' pastor, Rod Carver, said that since Overton's imprisonment, the church has become active in the community and judicial system and has "very much turned the tide of public opinion from 'crazy Christians' to people with their heads on straight."
When asked what went wrong in the Overton case, Orr said, "I think the moral to the story is you don't do a capital murder [trial] in 10 days and arrest [someone] before the autopsy is even final. When you're dealing with rare disorders, you need to take your time and keep an open mind so that you know what's going on. I think the doctors did the best they could with what they had, but it wasn't good enough."
The state District Court has until early June to make a recommendation to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which could release Overton, order a new trial, or throw out the new evidence.