Hannah Overton was convicted seven years ago for capital murder of her four-year-old foster son, Andrew Burd. I followed her trial with interest mostly because, as the TV and daily paper coverage made obvious, she had a staunch support group in the pastor and congregation of a local church, the Calvary Chapel of the Coastlands. They stood by her all the way and illustrate the social function that religious organizations serve: an attack on a church member is an attack on all. Or so one would assume since lawyers don't come free, and if a church or any other organization fronts the defense in a criminal case, they do a lot more than provide emotional support by attending trial, which they also did in this case. And how. They were in the courtroom every day of a trial that lasted several days. Both during and after the trial, the pastor and the congregants gave interviews meant to convince the media, at least, that Ms. Overton was the victim of a botched proceeding, and a fundamentally unfair one from the start, a proceeding marred by the alcoholism and pill dependency of the prosecutor and the failure of defense counsel to call as a witness an expert who might have cleared her of wrongdoing. This social function of churches may explain why, lately, we've seen the rise of so-called atheist "churches."
Little Andrew died of salt poisoning. You heard that right. Hannah was accused of punishing the lad by making him eat massive amounts of Cajun-style seasoning. (If you examine the ingredients of this concoction -- my own favorite is a brand whimsically called "Slap Yo' Mama" -- you'll note that salt is the first item in the list, as in all such seasoning sprinklers -- except "Mrs. Dash." The State maintained, and medical experts concluded in court, that Andrew's death would not have occurred had Hannah and her husband, Larry, simply taken the boy to the hospital sooner than they did. In law, that would be criminal negligence on their part -- if indeed a link could be shown this lapse in responsibility was what killed the boy, Cajun seasoning or not. It was this failure of the Overtons that got Hannah convicted, not giving Andrew the seasoning, whether to punish him or, as the defense maintained, because he had a craving for salty foods. (One gets the impression that Andrew was mentally impaired and might not have found a foster home very easily had the Overtons not taken him. I probably don't have to point out that the poor sometimes take in foster children for the montly government checks. That said, there are plenty of foster parents who genuinely care for their wards, and in any event the checks are not all that lucrative.)
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals did not base its decision to overturn both the lower appellate court and the trial court on the salty evidentiary, merely mentioning that the result might have been different had attorneys for Hannah called a key witness, a medical expert hired by the defense, a man who concluded that Andrew had an undiagnosed eating disorder called pica. Due to a mix-up in the scheduling of the trial, this witness was not available, and the Court of Criminal Appeals (in Texas, the "Supreme Court" for criminal cases) grounded their reversal on a finding of "ineffective assistance of counsel." Rarely are criminal cases reversed on this ground, and if the court had wanted to give some guidance to the trial court for future proceedings vis-a-vis grounds of error based on issues other than bad lawyering, they could have done so. They sometimes do. But the appellate attorneys urged ineffective assistance as their very first ground of error, so the court saw no point in ruling on the others.
At the outset, though, it is to be noted that very few cases are overturned because of inadequacy of counsel. The federal standard is almost insurmountable, based on Strickland v. Washington, a federal case. Lawyers have actually slept through parts of trial and their efforts found not ineffective. However, one recent case in Texas found ineffective assistance when the client was later found incompetent to stand trial, and that was not brought to the trial court's attention at the trial stage. One suspects that the court in Overton felt that had Dr. Michael Moritz, the pica expert, actually testified the resulting verdict would have been quite different. For example, the jury might have convicted on manslaughter.
The question now is, will the district attorney retry the case on the same charge or a lesser offense. Or will he regard the years Overton has already spent in prison as punishment enough and let the woman go, perhaps charged with a lesser crime and given "time served." My own question is, how much did packing the gallery with "fans" of Ms. Overton, good churchgoing folk, influence the first trial. I am not saying the judge's impartiality was strained, only that the jury might have been more lenient; but then, by their verdict, they clearly were not. Overton would never have obtained a new trial without some tithes being spent on the battery of attorneys who came from all over Texas to argue for a new trial before the same judge that ruled over the initial trial. As is common, he refused to grant it, and that is why the attorneys went to the Court of Criminal Appeals. This case had national attention, by the way, featured on ABC's "20/20" and the Katie Couric program, "Katie." If the local D.A. decides to proceed against the woman on the same or some other charge, such as criminal negligence in not taking the boy the hospital for some time after he exhibited coma-like symptons, I will add a P.S. to this entry.