John MacCormack - Express-News
“He flat-out accused Hannah of killing Andrew. Hess said, ‘He was throwing poop at her. She's pregnant, she did this to him and then she called her husband to come help her get rid of him,'” Haller recalled.
“He said, ‘She's got all these kids running around. They tried to do right with him, but it was too much. She was looking for a way out,'” Haller added.
“I was flabbergasted. I know Hannah and I knew this hadn't occurred. She could never have done this. She had a back injury,” she said.
But, she said, Hess, whose wife then was a supervisor for Child Protective Services, brushed off her protests. After taking her statement, he left with his partner Detective Mike Ilse.
Haller said she quickly called her longtime friend and neighbor: “I told her, ‘Hannah, they're coming after you. He's accusing you.'”
“That's not the truth. I said nothing like that. At the time, I had no clue of what happened,” Hess said.
A three-week jury trial, with live television coverage, had just ended with her conviction of capital murder.
“What you're going to hear is that they targeted Hannah from the very first,” defense lawyer John Gilmore said. “And (they) investigated this case with the specific intent to convict Hannah and overlooked any other possibility.”
The state accused Overton of killing Andrew by feeding him salt or a salty creole spice, then waiting too long to get him critical medical attention.
“The analogy someone made was that it looks like this child lost a fight with a porcupine,” Dr. Alexandre Rotta said.
He calculated that the salt level in Andrew's blood indicated he had consumed the equivalent of six teaspoons of salt or 23 teaspoons of Zatarain's creole seasoning.
When polled, the jurors indicated they believed Overton hadn't acted quickly enough to save him. Because of the peculiar jury charge, she was found guilty of capital murder “by omission.”
Later, one juror complained to the judge, saying the charge was confusing and that justice was not served.
Overton was given a mandatory life sentence without parole. She's being held at a maximum security prison near Gatesville.
He comes regularly to visit her in Gatesville, a 650-mile roundtrip from Corpus Christi.
Visits with her five biological children, ages 1 to 9, are less frequent, since they must talk to their mother through thick glass.
“It's very hard. Five children fighting over the phone, crying because they can't kiss mommy,” she said.
According to court pleadings, Andrew was born to an alcohol- and drug-using teen. Eventually, state officials placed him in foster care.
When he was placed for adoption at 4, Andrew had delayed speech, was socially immature, had a huge appetite and ate inappropriate items.
“We were just praying and waiting, you know, to see what child God had for us,” Hannah Overton explained at trial.
“CPS had told us multiple times he was a perfectly healthy child, and we found later he had not been healthy for quite a while,” Overton said.
“We had to put the cat food in the garage because he would eat it. He would eat toothpaste. We couldn't keep soap in the bathroom because he'd take bites out of it. He broke a glow-stick and tried to drink it,” Overton recalled.
Shortly before Andrew's death, Overton and her adoption counselor decided to seek professional help for his tendency to eat inappropriate items, a condition known as pica.
“I think he ate something or multiple things when I was going in and out of the room. I think also his salt levels were high to begin with because he had been acting weird the last couple of days,” she said.
And, she said, the sinister scenario painted at trial by prosecutors is preposterous.
“There's no way anyone could have forced that child to eat anything. He was very stubborn and very strong. And I had just been in an accident. I was still in a lot of pain,” she said.
“I wonder if I had called 911 if things would have turned out differently. I don't think it would have turned out differently for Andrew, but it might have for me,” Overton said during the prison interview.
Dr. Michael Moritz, an expert on salt poisoning, came to Corpus Christi last fall expecting to testify about Andrew's death.
The defense decided not to call him because of scheduling problems, and felt confident with other expert witnesses.
“You had a runaway prosecution and a crappy defense. It's terrible what happened here. People need to know,” he said.
“He had a huge, abrupt and rapid deterioration. He became violently ill in front of their eyes, and soon thereafter he had arrest. When they checked his sodium, it was among the highest ever recorded in the literature,” he said.
“The question is, how did it happen?” he asked.
“Where's the smoking gun? There is no evidence of force. No salt on the body. No lacerations to his mouth. No salt crystals in his mouth or nose,” he said.
Far more likely, Moritz believes, is that Andrew, who had an eating disorder and fit the profile of other salt-poisoning victims in medical studies, ate the salt himself.
“If you go to the literature, in every single case of alleged salt poisoning, they were kids just like him. Kids who were majorly screwed up, who bounded in and out of foster care, kids who were physically abused, kids with emotional deprivation syndrome,” he said.
In contrast, he said, it's very difficult to see the alternative scenario.
“Salt poisoning is a very severe psychopathology on the parent's part. And I met Hannah Overton. I spent time with her. She's a nice, sweet normal lady,” he said.
“To me, accidental voluntary salt poisoning is far more plausible than that this nice lady, this religious do-gooder who took this kid in, suddenly turning into a psychopath and killing this kid.”
When police and child welfare workers rushed to Driscoll Children's Hospital on Oct. 2, 2006, the night Andrew arrived dying of salt poisoning, they were amazed to find members of Overton's church there, praying hand in hand for his recovery.
Although the statement later was disavowed by police, the image was fixed in the public mind.
“I was depicted as a monster, as was my husband, and my church was depicted as a cult,” Overton said.
“People were accusing us of harboring child murderers. I told the congregation, if we support Hannah we could lose our property, but we won't lose Christ,” said Carver, a California native who keeps a guitar and surfboard in his office and sometimes preaches in flip-flops.
“It's still a spiritual battle. We still absolutely believe she will be set free. God has given us promises all along. And ultimately the answer is prayer,” he said.
Now running unopposed for his fifth term as Nueces County district attorney, Carlos Valdez is best known for prosecuting Yolanda Saldivar, the Selena fan who shot and killed the South Texas pop diva in 1995.
“The only case I ever tried,” Valdez remarked with wry sarcasm during a recent interview.
“I haven't had a reason to look into it,” he said of the controversial case.
“It's a simple case. The child had a substance in his body,” he said of Andrew.
“He was either killed or he accidentally committed suicide, and I don't think the child did that,” he said.
He brushed aside complaints raised by defense lawyers and Overton's supporters of overzealous prosecution and a failure to consider other possibilities for the salt poisoning.
“I've been doing this for 27 years. The defense lawyers try to get the media to put pressure on our office,” he said.
“I don't think he was forced to eat it. I think she put it on something he liked to eat, with the knowledge it would harm him, and with the intent to punish him,” he said.
A former New York prosecutor, the author of books on legal ethics and now a professor at Pace Law School in Philadelphia, Bennett Gershman is a nationally recognized expert on prosecutorial misconduct.
It perhaps was inevitable that he'd be found by supporters of Hannah Overton, who believe local prosecutors used foul play to convict her.
“I don't know of a case that involves a conviction of murder for failure to provide medical care for a child. It seems to me to be an extremely excessive example of prosecutorial overcharging,” he said.
“I think the death is so unexplained. Was it a homicide? Was it accidental? Or was it a medical anomaly?' he asked.
“A conviction for capital murder can't rest on such a flimsy, almost incredibly thin reed, as this one rests on. It rests on sand,” he said.