The Hannah Overton Case

DISCLAIMER:  This is the first time that I have placed this in any of the blogs that I have written but I feel that it is necessary after doing my research and finding sites in which unwarranted drama and name calling has occurred.  I make every effort to find the most accurate information I can find on a case and report that.  When information is conflicting I often report that also.  I welcome differing opinions but I do not tolerate comments in which myself or other posters are attacked. For this reason I reserve the right to see all comments before they are posted and I will not post a comment that I deem to be inappropriate. 

Like many I learned of this case during an episode of 20/20 and I began to follow it.  As I have repeatedly stated before, I do not solely rely on these types of shows when I am researching information for myself, let alone to post here. This particular show has received a lot of criticism.  There are claims of untruthfulness as well as bias information.  It would not be the first time in which I have seen this happened but it appeared to me that this particular case has received much more criticism than most.  I do not doubt that the show itself was bias in many ways.  That is often the case simply because there is not enough time to truly tell everything, but it also occurs because it seems that investigative reporting shows such as this have to make up drama or skew facts to make things more interesting.  That being said, although I obviously do not remember everything that was said on the 20/20 program, and I do believe they have done at least two on this case, I do recall there being some information on there about some things that I did not find much about in my research and they were things that did not bode well for Hannah Overton, but I will get to that in a bit.  

Andrew Burd was born on July 28, 2002 to a mother who not only was only sixteen years old but an apparent drug user.  She claimed, and I cannot confirm or deny, that Andrew's birth father was a 17 year old transient boy who traveled with a carnival. It was discovered, or maybe it was known, that Andrews mother not only used drugs repeatedly after he was born but had used them throughout her pregnancy.  When he was a year old his mother took him to the hospital where he had a broken arm.  Child Protective Services were called in and although they returned Andrew to his mother they apparently kept an eye on things.  By the time he was two and a half the state had decided that Andrew had suffered enough and they removed him from his mother's care due to repeated abuse.  For the next year or so he was passed around from foster home to foster home, although I could never find a specific reason why.  By the spring of 2006 Larry and Hannah Overton had learned of Andrew through people in their church.  Larry and Hannah had four children of their own and Hannah was pregnant with their fifth when Andrew came to live with them that spring in their Corpus Christi Texas home as a foster child.  Apparently it was to be for a probation period of six months. Things seemed to be going well and the Overton's had planned to adopt Andrew.

On October 2, 2006 Hannah found the precocious child in the pantry in the kitchen. It was later stated by the defense as well as other witnesses (although we have to remember they were testifying for the defendant) that Andrew was the type of child you had to keep a complete eye on or he was into something he probably should not have been.  Hannah claimed that she did not see that Andrew had gotten into anything specific but that not long later he began to vomit and appeared to have issues with breathing.  Instead of calling or taking him to the doctor she called her husband, Larry, at work who came home.  Not long after Larry arrived he stated that Andrew became unresponsive and he and Hannah rushed him to an urgent care clinic near by.  Once there he apparently stabilized and was sent to a local hospital.  After the Overton's left the clinic workers there notified the police.  They stated that Andrew seemed to have a lot of bruises on him but more importantly they did not think that Hannah Overton was acting as a mother should have in a situation of such. Andrew was admitted into the hospital and put in to the intensive care unit.  It was here that he died at the age of four on the evening of October 3, 2006.

By this time the police had already began to look into the Overton's and had searched their home.  Although my research found little information on the condition of Andrew's room, as I recall the 20/20 episode did speak of this. According to them the police had found very few possessions in Andrew's room and that his bed all but consisted of a mattress on the floor.  They had also found the remains of burnt sheets in the back yard.  Hannah would later claim that Andrew had a tendency to soil his sheets badly and that the morning before the incident they had been particular bad and that they had decided to burn them.  Yes, I too find this to be an odd statement and reaction, but again, keep in mind that little of this was reported about so apparently the authorities saw little behind it.  

Upon his death the local medical examiner, Dr. Fernandez,  conducted an autopsy on Andrew's body. He made several rulings and discoveries.  First, he noted that there was bleeding on the brain.  He also noted that there were several external scratches and bruises on Andrew's body.  Fernandez discovered that Andrew had twice the normal level of sodium in his body.  In the end he ruled that the manner of death was homicide and that the cause of death was "acute sodium toxicity with blunt force trauma as a contributing factor."  So basically what he said was that someone had poisoned Andrew with salt and then hit him on the head.  Many argued later that there was no sign of an external injury to Andrew's head and that Fernandez did not consider or acknowledge that the bleeding on the brain could have been caused by the sodium levels or anything else that could have been going on internally. In fact, at trial Fernandez was prevented from discussing the blunt force trauma because there was not enough scientific evidence to back his claim. Almost immediately after his ruling the remaining Overton children were removed from their home and placed with relatives.  Since Hannah had admitted being the one home with Andrew investigators came down harder on her, although Larry was not immune.  The first person to interview Hannah was an officer named Michael Hess. Hess specialized in child abuse cases and became convinced fairly quickly that Hannah was overwhelmed with all the children, by now she had given birth to her fifth child, and had been abusing and ultimately killed Andrew.  Both Hannah and Larry were arrested and charged. My research was a bit sketchy as to just what the initial charges were and whether Hannah and/or Larry remained in jail.  As I understood it while Hannah remained in jail, Larry, was released on bail (although it is possible that she was also).  By the time her trial began in August 2007 Hannah was charged with capital murder.

As with almost every case that goes to trial, the prosecution had a theory in which they imagined how things occurred.  In her opening statement Sandra Eastwood stated "We don't know precisely how she got the salt down Andrew, but we know he was very, very, obedient." Eastwood would also state that "Andrew had an enraged mother who didn't, I don't think, loved him the way that she loved her own biological children."  Throughout the trial the prosecution would claim that Hannah had force fed Andrew salt in some manner, either through water or from a spoon.  Dr. Fernandez testified about his findings at the autopsy.  As I stated earlier he was not allowed to mention anything about blunt force trauma but he did mention the bruises, the scratches and even the blood on the brain.  He testified that there was a burn like scar on Andrew's arm indicating that he had touched something hot.  As far as I could tell there was no timeline given as to when this scar could have occurred.  A pediatric critical care specialist from Indiana also testified.  In his opinion the level of sodium in Andrew's body meant that the death was not an accident and had amounted to 6 teaspoons of salt.  Yet despite the expert claim, Eastwood is quoted as saying "(the defendant) basically tortured a child, making him sleep on plywood, burning his sheets, becoming so enraged she force fed him to have 23 teaspoons of hot pepper, and then watched him die in agony." (To be fair there was an opinion piece that I later found that claimed "an expert" also claimed 23 teaspoons were given). Then there were a parade of witnesses from the clinic Hannah and Larry had taken Andrew to and investigators who claimed that Hannah was unemotional and that her behavior was not what they would expect from a mother of critically ill child. One claimed to overhear Hannah say that this had begun after he had been punished yet there was no elaboration.  

Then it was the defense's turn.  They brought a forensic pathologist to the stand who believed that based on the information he had learned about Andrew and his past that he likely suffered from what is called PICA.  PICA is a disorder in which people, almost always children, will eat anything and everything whether it is edible or not.  They tend to over eat many things and often those things are items in which a normal person would not be able to handle.  The pathologist, Dr. Melinek, believed that it was likely that Andrew himself had found the form of salt in the pantry before Hannah had found him and had ingested it himself. He also believed, based on the pictures of Andrew's body that many of the sores were consistent with mosquito bites that had been excessively scratched. Hannah then testified in her own defense but many say she was her worse witness.  She did not come across as sympathetic or convincing.  Her stance was simply that Andrew was an overactive child who did have issues but not to the point in which she and her husband found him to be unmanageable. She did testify, as well as others who had observed Andrew's eating habits, that he tended to stuff himself when he ate at every meal as if he was starving and had a tendency to eat things he should not.  

The jury had to decide if they believed that Hannah force fed Andrew the salt, knowing it would kill him OR if she failed to get him medical attention in a timely fashion and that knowing she would not would have caused death.  After a three week trial they deliberated for 11 hours and returned with a verdict of guilty of capital murder, which apparently was the only charge they could find on her if they in fact found her guilty.  After the verdict the defense attorneys polled the jury and found that none of them were convinced that Hannah had fed, or force fed Andrew the salt and that they all convicted her on the fact of failing to get medical care in a timely manner. This hardly seems like something that warrants a conviction of capital murder.... but it was.  Because she was convicted of capital murder of a victim under the age of six Hannah was automatically sentenced to life in prison.  

The defense has claimed (this has been brought into question)that just a few days after the verdict they were contacted by Dr. Edgar Cortes.  Cortes was the emergency room doctor who treated Andrew.  According to the defense, Cortes was asked to testify for the prosecution but that Sandra Eastwood did not call him.  He claimed that he would have testified that he believed the death to be accidental and that he believed Andrew to be a hyperactive child who suffered from a form of autism.  I was unable to determine if Cortes had seen and treated Andrew in the past or if these conclusions were based solely on the ER visit the day before his death and the fact that he stated he had studied Andrew's records. 

Based on the information from Cortes, among other things, the defense filed an appeal stating that there was newly discovered evidence, that Eastwood had withheld exculpatory evidence and that Hannah had not received adequate counsel at her trial.  In 2009 the Texas Circuit Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the conviction, rejecting all that was claimed and stating that there was not any proof that Eastwood knew what Cortes had planned to state in court.  No matter what position that anyone takes on this case I think most of us can agree that it is unreasonable to believe that Eastwood did not know what Cortes would testify to.  Here we have a little 4 year old boy who has died.  As a prosecutor we have called all the nurses from an urgent care clinic to testify about the demeanor of the mother and yet we have not called the responding emergency room doctor at the hospital to testify as to what he observed?  This seems odd to me.  It seems unreasonable to believe that with all of the people who were interviewed that Cortes would not have also been interviewed and if in fact he gave this opinion Eastwood would have known this.  In my opinion Cortes was not called because his belief and theory did not match the prosecution.  In the same respect, she did not apparently give that information to the defense.  However, to play devil's advocate here, it is not just the prosecution's job to find witnesses so we could ask ourselves why the defense had not interviewed Cortes themselves and discovered this. It would seem that that alone could have added to the ineffective counsel argument.

In the Spring of 2010 Hannah's new appeal lawyers filed to have access to have the prosecution file on the case.  One of the first interesting things that they found was a document relating to the stomach contents found in the autopsy.  There was apparently a record in which the original attorney's had asked for this and was told by Sandra Eastwood that it did not exist.  I am became confused when researching this area at a comment that stated that the appellant attorneys stated that according to their records there was not an elevated amount of salt in Andrew's body when he got to the clinic.  I am unsure how this was determined or where this came from but despite the confusion I felt I should mention it here.  The defense also claimed that the prosecution had discussed the case with a Dr. Moritz.  Moritz was a specialist in child kidney diseases and in 2007 he had written a paper on accidental salt poisoning.  According to Moritz in the study that had been conducted a majority of the children affected with this issue, which he later attributed to being PICA were boys between the ages of one and six.  Moritz claimed that all of the children were either in abusive homes or in foster care in which they came from abusive homes. According to the defense later, Moritz claimed that he had been in the court house waiting to testify but that Eastwood never called him.  He stated as time went on he informed Eastwood he needed to return to his practice so she began a deposition that was never finished.  In his opinion Moritz believed that Andrew's death was accidental.  

In April of 2011 the appeals court was petitioned for an evidence hearing.  It took until February of 2012 for a judge to order this in the trial courts.  That hearing began in April of 2012.  At this hearing Hannah's original attorney's testified, not just to things such as items they had asked for but were told did not exist but their own conduct and manner in which they provided counsel.  A forensic pathologist, Judy Melinek claimed that Dr. Fernandez did not look at two of Andrew's glands when determining the manner and cause of death and brought question to that.  Dr.'s Cortes and Moritz also testified as did former prosecutor Sandra Eastwood.  In 2010 Eastwood had been fired after admitting to a romance with a convicted sex offender.  It was brought up at the hearing that at the time of Hannah's trial Eastwood suffered from alcohol and was addicted to prescription diet pills.  Eastwood apparently agreed with this but used these things as her excuse for not remembering things from the trial.  She was very wishy washy in her answers and rarely answered anything directly.  Her former assistant, Anna Jimenez testified that Eastwood had been obsessed with this case, among other things, including lying to make the story fit her theory.  Anna Jimenez, as well as others, had argued for a lesser charge than capital murder but Eastwood insisted.  With all of this evidence that was testified to in June of 2012 the judge ruled that there was no new evidence or misconduct at the original trial. Again, no matter what position you take on this case that you can look at this hearing and hear everything that was said and come out of it believing that there was a fair trial or that nothing was hidden or done incorrectly.  In this hearing there was evidence from experts in different fields, as well as doctors who treated the child testifying. There is also a prosecutor who has admitted to drug and alcohol abuse during the trial and "could not remember" anything apparently that did not suit her claims.  Add to this one of Hannah's previous attorney's literally had tears in his eyes as he testified as to how he had not given adequate counsel to Hannah during her trial and cited evidence of such.  

Of course the defense appealed this decision and in September of 2014 the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals voted 7 to 2 to grant Hannah a new trial.  Their reasons behind this involved the problems with Eastwood and they also chastised Hannah's previous attorney's for not calling a salt poisoning expert.  After this ruling the new prosecutor had a few choices.  He could dismiss the charges, offer a plea agreement (which by the way Larry Overton had received after Hannah's trial), or recharge Hannah (with the same or a lesser charge).  He announced that he was recharging her, once again with capital murder.  I find this utterly amazing no matter what position you take.  There simply was not enough evidence to warrant a capital murder charge.  In fact, although she was convicted the first time the jury had not been convinced even then that she had poisoned Andrew and had convicted her based on their belief she did not get him medical attention fast enough, a claim in which would easily been argued and the odds of proving she intentionally withheld care would be difficult.

On December 16, 2014 a judge set Hannah's bond at $50,000.  Her family helped her post bail and she was released to await trial.  In April of 2015 the prosecutor announced that he was dropping all charges against Hannah.  The prosecutor finally had to admit that many errors occurred in the original trial but claimed that he came to this decision based on "new interviews" with witnesses and medical experts.

As we see with so many cases, this is one in which due to the media coverage in the case many people came to a conclusion that Hannah intentionally murdered Andrew, and yet many of those who came to that conclusion did so not based on the evidence but based on her lifestyle and the history of some members of her family.  Hannah and Larry Overton were very involved in their church and had worked on missionary trips in the past. Neither Hannah, nor Larry, had had any issues at all with the law in the past. Neither of them had ever had their parenting questioned by anyone, let alone authorities. In fact, after her conviction there were apparently retroactive claims of abuse that were investigated and found to be untrue.  There are some who believe that these claims were an attempt by a CPS worker who had been in charge of the case to justify non-action taken sooner as the rumors and allegations added up.  I read in my research that this worker no longer works for the agency but I cannot confirm that, nor the reason why they are no longer employed there.  So, what is that the public knew about Hannah and her history that was not brought up at the trial because it was irrelevant?  First, although my information is sketchy on this, Hannah's maternal grandfather's name was Marshall Applewhite.  Now, where confusion leads is to whether her grandfather was a Senior or a Junior. This does make a difference, at least for me.  Marshall Applewhite Jr. is famous for being the man who created and ran the cult, Heaven's Gate. They are notorious not just for being a cult but for enacting the largest mass suicide on United States soil in 1997 in which 39 people, including Applewhite died.  I have seen a family tree that indicates that Applewhite Jr. is Hannah's mother, Mary's, father, but I have also seen indications in which Marshall Applewhite Sr is listed as Mary's father.  Many sources claim however that Hannah's mother did not know her father (or was it brother) and did not associate with him and had no interest or involvement in his cult.  Then there is Hannah's father, Bennie Saenz. He was apparently a minister who was charged and convicted of murdering a sixteen year old girl when Hannah was seven.  While I admit that it is odd that one would have one, let alone two "murderers" in their family I honestly do not believe that it is an automatic reason to morally convict Hannah.  In the same respect, I should point out that I am not the type of person who will generally use one's religion as an excuse or a reason when it comes crimes.  Crimes are crimes, no matter how you look at them.  However, as we all know, our upbringing and our environment shape how we do things as an adult. Hannah and Larry were the parents of four other children when Andrew entered their home.  They believed in home schooling their children.  My research did not tell me if this choice was made because of their faith or if there were other reasons behind it.  I will say that I have stated several times, that although my children are grown now, if I had it to do over again I would home school them as I do not believe that public schools have the ability to teach the things children should know to function in society, but that is simply my opinion.  That opinion, or right does not give me the right to commit a crime, nor is it a right to have me judged for a crime based on that belief.  

This has become a case in which I do not believe that it really matters whether someone believes that Hannah Overton was guilty of the crime of murder or not. What this case boils down to is similar to all cases, it becomes a matter of what can be proven and what the true evidence shows.  Whether Hannah Overton force fed Andrew the salt as the prosecution claimed or not is actually difficult to say.  However, the prosecution could not prove that, not even to the jury.  Was this because Hannah was the only witness with Andrew at the time?  Maybe. The defense did a decent job with their witnesses in showing that Andrew did have an issue with food, that could have led to the disease of PICA and as we all know, reasonable doubt was needed.  The jury in fact only convicted Hannah on the basis that they felt once symptoms occurred Hannah failed to get medical attention to Andrew in a timely manner.  Do I believe that calling her husband at work prior to calling 9-1-1 or taking him to the emergency room was a bit odd? Maybe but we have to remember this was a pregnant mother with five children. As parents, the more children we have, the less panicked we become when they initially get sick.  We will often wait and see if it gets worse as time goes on. Not to mention this was not a situation where she could simply just pick Andrew up and leave since she had other children in the home.  She would have either had to load the other children up to take them with her to the doctor or called someone to care for them.  Reality is that Andrew simply started to vomit and how often do we call an ambulance for that?  From my assessment she probably called Larry at work to inform him or get an opinion, or maybe her religion did come into play here in which she deferred to him and his ideas, I do not know. By all accounts however it sounds as if once he got home Andrew became worse, quickly, but again they had to secure children and then rush Andrew to the clinic, which seemingly no one disputes.  The argument seems to lie with the lack of medical attention prior to Larry returning home.  Even still if we were to argue that Hannah did not take the proper actions in getting medical attention in a timely manner to Andrew most agree that does not rise to the level of capital murder as she was charged.  

A proper defense in her trial could have likely walked away with an acquittal in my opinion since there were only apparently two options.... guilty of capital murder and not guilty.  As I stated above, while the lack of medical attention is a bit troubling I definitely do not think that it can be proven that it rose to the level of believing that Hannah Overton knew without immediate care Andrew would die.  There is simply no evidence to support this.  Did her lack of immediate care contribute to his death?  I am unsure we can ever know that for sure.  This appeared to be a case in which investigators and prosecutors were convinced that this was abuse by the Overton's, specifically Hannah, and refused to look at other options.  The defense did bring in witnesses that knew the Overton's as well as Andrew and testified to his unusual eating habits.  These of course can always be dismissed as people trying to help their friends.  But, as the court of appeals ruled, they should have looked more into accidental salt poisoning, although I do admit based on the decision of the jury I am unsure that would have mattered a lot.  There was obvious misconduct from the prosecution in this case.  Some of it seemed evident in the trial, and much more came out after.  There were many claims made that were simply not supported by the evidence.  In my opinion Hannah Overton should face another jury, if for no other reason than to determine as much as possible as to just what she could have been responsible and lay some things to rest. She should have a fair trial in which all of the evidence is presented.  In the same respect, in my opinion if in fact she did receive a fair trial with a proper charge and was convicted we have to remember that she has already served seven years in prison for the charges of capital murder, something that could not be proven and so to have another trial would likely be a waste of tax payers money seeing as if they did not determine that seven years (which amounts to 14 with good behavior) was not enough time reality is that she would not receive much more.  To have another trial would simply be for her benefit to prevent any future charges in this manner and hopefully put to rest some of the questions that were left.

In the course of my research I was astounded at the websites I found that were full of hate towards Hannah and those who adamantly believe that she abused Andrew.  Not once in my reading did I see anyone talk about Andrew's history and the real possibility of him being a troubled child.  He was a child who for the first two years of his life lived in a proven abuse environment.  His birth mother apparently not only abused him after birth but supposedly admitted to using many drugs while pregnant.  Science has shown us the medical effects of drug use during pregnancy on a child.  For the next year or more he was bounced from home to home before going to the Overton home.  It is unreasonable to believe that this child did not have many issues and to ignore them.  Here again is where I believe the defense failed Hannah.  

When we convict, or even charge someone, we need to have the facts and present those facts as accurately as possible.  When they are skewed or manipulated to fit a position, despite if a crime is committed it is not justice. There are those who feel that when they believe someone is guilty the prosecution should pull out all the stops and do whatever it takes to convict someone.  I do not believe in this policy because what many fail to realize is that for every ruling a judge makes in a case, it can be used in other cases.  A good example of this is the Drew Peterson case.  There are specific rules, although they are confusing, when it comes to statements made by others outside a courtroom, called hearsay.  There are also rules pertaining to a defendant having the right (through their attorney) to face their accuser and that accuser be questioned.  In the Peterson case, although I fully believe that he is guilty not only of his ex-wife's death but the disappearance of another wife, a law was created in order to allow statements that his missing wife supposedly made to another regarding the death of his ex-wife, claiming he was responsible. Because this law was created, it opens the door to allow those involved in other cases to cite this law in order to allow things in court that would not normally be allowed.  For me this opens the door to allow investigators and prosecutors who are convinced someone is guilty to use whatever measures they can despite other evidence.  We need to be careful that we can prove guilt, or at least to the level of charges, and we are not over charging people or creating a case that is not there. 

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