In 2007, Hannah Overton was accused of salt poisoning of her 4-year-old foster son. What unfolded afterward still haunts those involved with the case.
It was the worst day of Hannah Overton’s life. She’d just had lunch with Andrew, the 4-year-old boy her family was fostering with plans to adopt, when he began to vomit. He complained he felt cold and his head hurt. She called her husband, Larry, at work to tell him to come home. After giving Andrew a bath, his breathing became congested and strained. Hannah, a trained nurse, decided the symptoms were serious enough for the couple to drive him to urgent care. She thought maybe he was coming down with the flu, and calling 911 and waiting for an ambulance would take longer than driving Andrew in.
But on the ride over, around 5 p.m., Andrew stopped breathing. “We were at a red light, and I could see the urgent care place,” Hannah says. “Until that point, I had no idea it was life or death. I panicked.”
After checking him into Corpus Christi’s urgent care facility, Andrew was transferred to the hospital. Hannah embraced her son and told him she loved him. That was the last time she ever saw Andrew alive.
In the midst of the chaos, detectives arrived. Hannah was whisked away to the police station where she was questioned about the events of the day. She didn’t know it then, but Hannah — a loyal churchgoer who’d never so much as gotten a speeding ticket — was the prime suspect in the death of the 4-year-old boy. Months later, she was charged with capital murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
“Why Don’t We Adopt Him?”
Andrew Burd came into the Overtons’ home just four months before his death, but Hannah had dreamed of having a big family and adopting a child since she was a teenager. Hannah and Larry had met in high school in Corpus Christi, Texas. The couple had four young children in 2006, when they talked to the kids about wanting to adopt a fifth child.
Andrew had been in foster care for two years, and his current foster mother attended the Overtons’ church. “Andrew was in a Sunday school class with our daughters Isabel and Alisia, and he was praying every week for a forever family,” says Hannah, a petite, soft-spoken brunette. “Ally came home one day and said, ‘Andrew wants a forever family. Why don’t we adopt him?'”
Hannah and Larry met the blue-eyed boy and fell in love instantly. “He was adorable — funny, cute, always wanting attention,” she says. “He was so starved for love that he would gravitate toward anyone. He had a great little personality.”
Once the Overtons looked into Andrew’s adoption process, they learned he’d been having troubles in Sunday school — acting out and misbehaving by doing things like eating from the trash. “We really thought a lot of that stuff would stop as soon as he got into a safe environment,” says Hannah, who had worked for years as a licensed nurse for children with disabilities. “Once he moved in, though, we realized he was more special needs than we had been told. Still, I thought my nursing background would help me deal with his needs.”
The Overtons took him in for a mandatory 6-month trial period, at the end of which they could make the final decision on whether or not to move forward with the adoption. Shortly after Andrew moved in, Hannah found out she was pregnant. She was thrilled — her lifelong dream of having six children was coming true.
Andrew bonded well with their other children, and he called Larry and Hannah “daddy” and “mommy.” But Andrew’s insatiable appetite, which often ended in wild tantrums, became a constant battle in the Overton household. When he was denied food, he would defecate on the floor and spread it on the walls. He would sneak into the kitchen to get food for himself from the pantry, so they put a baby monitor in his bedroom to keep an eye on him. The video footage revealed Andrew was also attempting to eat his foam mattress and paint chips off the wall.
They notified Andrew’s case worker of his unusual behavior but were assured that children with troubled backgrounds will act out in a new environment and that things could calm down. According to multiple sources, Andrew’s birth mother had done drugs when she was pregnant with him and he was abused as a baby by his birth family, which was why he’d been taken out of their care.
So, on October 2, 2006, when Hannah made lunch for Andrew — a chili-like dish of bean soup with Creole Seasoning — she wasn’t surprised when he insisted on a second bowl. After that helping, he begged for another. Worried that so much food would make him sick, Hannah says she sprinkled some of the seasoning into water in Andrew’s sippy cup, hoping the broth would give him the taste of the soup without filling him up too much.
It was after that lunch when Andrew began vomiting and complaining of feeling ill. His symptoms — vomiting and chills — seemed in line with a stomach bug. When driving him to the urgent care facility, Hannah never considered that what she’d fed Andrew could be the cause of his illness. But he was diagnosed with hypernatremia, also known as salt poisoning. They didn’t know it at the time but, because of the hypernatremia, Andrew’s body was also covered in bruises when he arrived at the hospital, which led the authorities to believe the boy had been abused.
Down at the police station, Hannah, who describes herself as “totally naïve about the criminal justice system at that point,” having never gotten into any legal trouble, didn’t think to demand a lawyer before she was questioned by detectives. The interrogation tapes, obtained by Investigation Discovery as they were working on a documentary about the case, show her hunched over, rushing through questions, while repeatedly asking when she could return to the hospital to see Andrew.
Detective Michael Hess showed particular interest in Hannah giving the boy seasoning in his water. “Have you ever done anything like this to any of your other children … water with chili in it?” Hess asked in the tapes.
“No, I was just trying to … you know,” Hannah explained, “get him happy, get him to calm down.”
“With chili?” he asked, to which she replied, “Because he wanted more of that chili.”
After spending hours with Hannah, Hess moved on to her husband, Larry. “When he began questioning me,” Larry says in the documentary, “I knew that he had his mind made up, that my wife had done something to Andrew.”
Andrew died the night of October 3. Because they were suspects, Hannah and Larry weren’t allowed to be with him at the hospital. When Andrew took his last breath, Hannah’s mother and pastor were with him. Hannah found out about her son’s death from a phone call from the pastor. She says, “Not being able to be with him was just … it’s just … I don’t have words to describe it.”
Because of the investigation, the other four Overton children were taken away by Child Protective Services to live with two separate foster families. After one night, Hannah’s mother was able to secure temporary custody.
And when Hannah was out on bail, awaiting trial, she gave birth to her youngest daughter, Emma, in January 2007. She was allowed to spend three days with her in the hospital and then CPS took Emma away too. “Her birth was a bright spot in all of this. We gave her the middle name ‘Blessing,’ because she really is such a blessing,” Hannah says. She was convinced that once the police looked further into it, they’d realize she had nothing to do with Andrew’s death and that her family would be able to grieve the loss of Andrew together.
Weeks later, Hannah and Larry noticed red and blue cop car lights flashing behind them. When they pulled over, they were approached by officers with their guns drawn and who ordered the couple to the ground to handcuff them. A row of TV reporters were there with their cameras to capture the entire thing.
At that moment, Hannah realized for the first time how dire the situation was — and she was terrified. The Overtons were charged with capital murder, for which the only punishments in Texas are the death penalty or life in prison without parole.
The media attention surrounding the case was crushing. Hannah was portrayed as a cold, calculating, abusive mother. Pamela Colloff, the Texas Monthly reporter covering the Overtons’ story, noted online commenters were ruthless in their criticism, one writing, “You can just tell by looking at her how evil she is.”
Prosecutor Sandra Eastwood painted a picture of a desperate, overwhelmed woman who held down her foster son by the throat and forced him to drink a fatal concoction.
“Andrew had an enraged mother who didn’t, I don’t think loved him the way that she loved her own biological children,” Eastwood said at trial, according to an ABC News report. “The case boils down to a woman who basically tortured a child … becoming so enraged she forced him to have 23 teaspoons of hot pepper, and then watched him die in agony.” (The number 23 comes from an estimate from a doctor who testified that it was the amount — equivalent to 6 teaspoons of salt — that would be fatal to a 4-year-old.)
“Hearing those things at the trial was just sickening,” Hannah says, her voice cracking. “Even thinking about it today, my stomach is in knots right now.”
To make matters worse for Hannah, at the trial’s close, the jury was told they could charge her with capital murder by omission, meaning they could find her guilty if she had negligently failed to save Andrew’s life by not getting him to the hospital in time — an extremely rare standard for murder. In September 2007, after a 3-week trial and 11 hours of deliberation, the jury came back with a guilty verdict. When polled afterward, all 12 jurors said they didn’t think Hannah intentionally poisoned her son, but that she hadn’t done enough to help him fast enough.
For Hannah, hearing the verdict and the days after are a blur. She doesn’t remember embracing her husband in the courtroom or her mom, who is seen on news footage whispering to her, “I love you. Be strong.” She just remembers feeling a combination of despair and numbness. Larry plead no contest to a lesser charge of criminally negligent homicide and was sentenced to five years probation and ordered to pay a $5,000 fine. The family was relieved, though, that he was able to regain custody of the children.
Hannah began to adjust to her new life behind bars. Every Saturday, her husband drove the five hours each way to visit her, and, once a month, he piled the kids into the van to see their mother. During one of those visits, Hannah watched through metal bars as her youngest daughter, Emma, took her first steps in the parking lot.
“That was really hard. On the one hand, it was amazing to be able to see her take her first steps in the parking lot, but I was six floors up behind thick glass while I watched,” Hannah says. “I worked really hard to stay as connected as possible to the kids. I called them regularly, and I actually taught Isaac, my oldest, literature through correspondence. I ordered a home-schooling program, picked his readings and graded them and sent them back to him. It was a way to stay connected.”
Hannah says that thanks to her faith, she never doubted that she would be proven innocent somehow and could return to her family — despite the fact that parole was not on the table. “Not that I didn’t have dark days — I did,” says Hannah, who was so depressed her first months behind bars that she dropped nearly 30 pounds because she wasn’t able to keep food down. “I was in such a haze. So depressed that I was in a fog, where I couldn’t eat or do anything other than just lay there. But I always believed God would prove my innocence.”
Hannah’s lawyers couldn’t let her case go, either: “I had some friends who are great criminal defense lawyers down in Corpus Christi — they’re tough guys. One day they called me together on a conference call and they were crying,” says Cynthia Orr, a San Antonio, Texas, attorney specializing in wrongful convictions. “They said they had just tried Hannah’s case and that she was nursing her baby, and her baby was taken from her arms and she was sent to serve life in prison without parole. Would I please come help, because she’s innocent?” Orr took the case.
Hannah’s new legal team realized a few holes in the case which could be key to getting her an appeal. For starters, Dr. Edgar Cortes, who’d observed Andrew before his death, never took the stand because, Orr says, the state made him unavailable to the defense. He could’ve provided an important perspective, since Andrew was described during the trial as a normal, healthy child. Cortes, however, knew of Andrew’s behavioral issues.
Second, Andrew’s vomit hadn’t been tested, according to the documentary, because the state had lied to the defense, saying it wasn’t available, when, in fact, it was. (Eastwood, the prosecutor who tried the case against Hannah, did not respond to requests for comment from GoodHousekeeping.com.) When the vomit was tested, it showed low sodium — proving that the lethal portion of salt must have been ingested earlier in the day. Hannah explained to her lawyers that she recalled Andrew earlier in the day sneaking into a kitchen cabinet, but didn’t recall what he had in his hand when she found him.
Finally, the testimony from Dr. Michael Moritz, an expert on salt poisoning, wasn’t shown during trial because the defense was told his video-recorded interview was of such poor quality that it wasn’t worth showing to the jury. But when Orr and her team reviewed it, they discovered it contained valuable facts about Andrew’s condition, like the fact that it takes at least an hour for a child to exhibit symptoms — thus proving that the Overtons reacted in a timely manner. Thanks to the new evidence, Hannah finally got a new trial on December 16, 2014.
At the bond hearing, Hannah’s legal team read a letter from Dr. Alexandre Rotta, the doctor who testified as a key witness for the prosecution against Hannah: “The outcome of this case still keeps me up at night after seven years. And I believe Mrs. Overton has more than served her punishment for what is at worst child endangerment or involuntary manslaughter. I am glad she has now successfully appealed [her] conviction but wish the DA would pursue a lesser charge if any affording her immediate release based on the time served.”
They were successful. After seven years locked away from her family, Hannah was released on bail just in time for Christmas. And her family was there to embrace her as she walked out of prison. Her husband and older two children threw their arms around her first, then, tears streaming down her face, she made her way to the younger two, who’d spent the majority of their lives interacting with their mom during prison visitation hours. Now, nearly as tall as their mom, they broke into shy smiles as they embraced her.
“It felt like a dream,” Hannah says. “I think all of us were scared we might wake up. The first week I was home, we were all together 24/7. I think the only time we slept was when we napped watching movies. After seven years of fantasizing what it would be like to be home with them, it was finally happening.”
And for the first time, the family was able to mourn Andrew together. “After he died, we were having to fight for our family so we were not able to take that time to just grieve. The emotions were overwhelming but we weren’t able to allow them to walk through those together,” she says. “The kids have really good memories of Andrew. They miss him.” Four months later, the murder charges against Hannah were dismissed.
Today, Hannah says her family has found its routine, but she appreciates the small moments with them more than ever before. She homeschools four of her children — the oldest is in a decipleship school in Waco. And Hannah and Larry started Syndeo Ministries, a nonprofit organization focused on incarcerated women. She also personally stays in touch with many of the women she met in prison who, she says became “like family.”
Hannah is also the subject of the documentary “Until Proven Innocent: The Hannah Overton Story,” on Investigation Discovery. It traces the mystery of her son’s death, the agonizing investigation that tore her family apart and landed her behind bars, and her eventual release seven years later.
Hannah hasn’t been compensated for her time in prison, but her lawyer, Orr, says she plans to pursue that for Hannah next year. Remarkably, though, Hannah says she doesn’t have anger when thinking back on the last decade of her life.
“Every day, I hear about things that I missed out on with my family, and that hurts. But I don’t deal with anger that often,” she says. “I gave that to God a long time ago. I realized I could not hold on to that anger. It would eat up at me.”