A Texas jury in 2007 believed prosecutors that claimed Hannah Overton deliberately force-fed salt into her foster child (whom she and her husband were going to adopt) four-year-old Andrew Burd until he became so ill that he soon died. Overton received the sentence of life without parole and is in prison.
The lead prosecutor, Sandra Eastwood, had desperately wanted to win and had told her second chair, Anna Jiminez, later would testify under oath that Eastwood had told her, “I will do anything to win this case.” Before the trial, Eastwood, the police, and, of course, the local media, already had demonized Overton and her family. During the trial, the prosecutors, judge, jurors, and the media pointedly ignored the very complex medical evidence that pointed toward the child having a rare disorder, and why not? These are people who hate complexity; simple narratives and villainous witches are much more preferable, especially when the accused might have religious beliefs that “sophisticated” people might discard.
The Overtons are Pentacostals and to Progressives that populate the mainstream media, Pentacostals are even stranger than men from Mars and have no place in a Progressive society. To make matters even worse, Nueces County District Judge Jose Longoria clearly sided with the prosecution and ensured that at best it would be a show trial. Jurors did what Texas jurors usually do: ignore any exculpatory evidence and convict, many times sending the accused to the execution chambers that are so frequently used in the Lone Star State.
Yet, things did not seem to make sense. Hannah Overton had no police record, was highly-regarded in her church, and had never engaged in any acts of violence against her children. Nonetheless, jurors and Longoria believed Eastwood and Jiminez when they claimed Overton somehow snapped under the pressure of having a fifth child and killed her soon-to-be-adopted son.
As often is the case in Texas, there was a story that was not told, and evidence that neither jurors nor the defense had seen, but that prosecutors knew. But Nueces County prosecutors also knew something else: Sandra Eastwood was an alcoholic and drug addict, and was well-known for lying. She was ambitious, and often impaired, and those two characteristics meant that defendants, and especially high-profile defendants like Hannah Overton, would be tried in circumstances not unlike what was known to happen in communist countries like the former U.S.S.R.
Prosecutors are officers of the court, and they also are required by law and by the rules set by the Texas State Bar not only to act ethically, but also to report unethical or dishonest actions of themselves or their peers to the authorities. Instead, as is usually the case in all prosecutorial offices in this country, both state and federal, the “ministers of justice” of Nueces County were silent, as they protected their own.
Anna Jiminez knew a lot of things about Eastwood, and later after Jiminez was elected Nueces County District Attorney, she fired Eastwood. As second chair, she knew the case file and she claimed later that she suspected Eastwood was withholding evidence in violation of the Brady ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, and by the Rules of Conduct for prosecutors in the State of Texas. But while Jiminez reported Eastwood to her superiors, according to later testimony, she never reported Eastwood to the Texas State Bar, as was required by the rules of conduct that govern her as a lawyer and as a prosecutor. (Not surprisingly, Eastwood’s superiors did nothing. They enjoyed winning and if a few innocent people went to prison, that was collateral damage. And, anyway, everyone already knew that Hannah Overton was a monster.)
Fortunately for Overton, a number of people were not willing to accept this conviction and began their own investigations. The best journalism was done by Pamela Colloff of Texas Monthly, who had this excellent and lengthy article in January of this year, and readers can find the particulars of the case if they so choose. Instead, I will deal with the police and prosecutorial abuse that sent Hannah Overton to prison for a “crime” that never happened.
Nonetheless, one cannot blame police for being suspicious when the four-year-old child was brought to the emergency room and then later died. Colloff writes:
The death of a child – particularly a sudden, unexplained death in which abuse is suspected – evokes strong emotions, even among seasoned investigators, doctors, forensics experts, and prosecutors. A more thorough investigation would have uncovered ample evidence to suggest that Andrew had an undiagnosed eating disorder, raising the possibility that he had unintentionally consumed too much salt on his own. But law enforcement officials are accustomed to handling child abuse cases, not medical mysteries, and salt poisoning is rare enough that most emergency room doctors will never encounter a case during their careers. Against the backdrop of possible abuse, authorities wasted little time. Larry was charged with injury to a child for failing to get Andrew timely medical attention. The onus for the boy’s death fell on Hannah, who was charged with capital murder.As they do in so many situations, the local journalists acted as little more than stenographers. Writes Colloff:
Corpus Christi’s introduction to Hannah came the following week, when she and Larry were arrested and led past a bank of TV cameras outside the Nueces County jail. News reports that followed, prominently featuring their grim-faced mug shots, cast the Overton home as a house of horrors. (“More shocking details on abuse suffered by four-year-old before death,” began one breathless report.)Colloff adds:
The media coverage of the case stirred widespread outrage. The Corpus Christi Caller-Times’s online comments section filled with the vitriol of readers, some of whom called for Hannah to receive the death penalty. (“You can just tell by looking at her how evil she is,” one wrote.) Fueling the public’s antipathy was an affidavit written by a CPS child abuse investigator named Jesse Garcia, who claimed that Hannah had admitted to forcing Andrew to drink two cupfuls of “chili with water” and quoted her as saying that she then “beat the shit out of him.” Garcia never produced any documentation or witnesses to corroborate his claim, and internal police memos show that law enforcement officials doubted the veracity of his story. Hess disavowed Garcia’s account at a court hearing regarding the Overton children, and prosecutors never entered Garcia’s affidavit into evidence or called him to testify at Hannah’s trial. (He was subsequently fired by CPS after having three car accidents on the job in less than six months.) But the damage was done: that Hannah had confessed to force-feeding Andrew and beating him was repeated, uncorrected, on the local news.(Emphasis mine)Rudy Giuliani said during his infamous Wall Street prosecutions in the late 1980s that once he made the accusations, the media would do his work for him. Whether it was the “sophisticated” New York media, such as the New York Times or Wall Street Journal, or the newspapers and television stations near Corpus Cristi, the relationship between prosecutors and the press has been insidious. Journalists rush to judgment, as they did in the case against Michael Milken, the Duke Lacrosse Case, and the case of Hannah Overton. Later, after the truth comes out, media representatives claim that they have “learned our lessons” and promise not to jump to conclusions. And then they repeat the process again and again.
In the area of “justice” and criminal accusations, narratives are a powerful force, and most journalists and government agents like to keep them simple: Michael Milken and Jack Abramoff were greedy Jews who lost their way and broke the law to get rich; the Duke lacrosse players were “privileged” white “jocks” in a violent sport who brutally beat and raped a poor black woman because they believed they were so “privileged” that they could get away with it; George Zimmerman was a white racist who hated blacks and gunned down Trayvon Martin in cold blood. The simple stories were so compelling; evidence that undermined the narratives was ignored or shouted down.
And so it was with Overton. The police and prosecutors had their narrative, and they were not going to let their prey go free, and the media simply did what it always does. But the prosecution also withheld evidence, as was discovered in an evidentiary hearing that ended last month. Yes, while Texas is a place where at least two innocent men have been executed recently, and while prosecutorial misconduct has dominated other wrongful convictions in that state, even the Texas State Court of Criminal Appeals decided that the evidence that jurors said convicted Overton was questionable, and that the court needed to examine what had happened.
For example, after he was brought into the hospital, Andrew vomited and doctors took samples, but the defense never was told about it nor given any information. Colloff explains:
Forensic pathologist Judy Melinek, an assistant medical examiner in San Francisco who had testified at Hannah’s trial, then took the stand to explain how critical this sample would have been to understanding exactly what had happened to Andrew. Determining the precise makeup of his stomach contents and the time they were collected, she said, would have been pivotal in a case in which the defendant was accused of poisoning the victim. After reviewing all the evidence, Melinek said, she firmly believed that Andrew had ingested a fatal amount of salt on his own. Her opinion was bolstered by the testimony of Edgar Cortes, an emergency medicine pediatrician who had seen Andrew twice before his death. Cortes maintained that he had informed Eastwood prior to trial that the boy had suffered from significant cognitive delays. These delays, Cortes now testified, put Andrew at greater risk for eating inappropriate items and ingesting something lethal. Yet Andrew was portrayed during the trial as a normal four-year-old. As for why the jury never heard his medical opinion, Cortes stated, “I felt like the prosecution had its own theory about what happened.”At the evidentiary hearing ordered by the appeals court, Dr. Michael Moritz, one of the world’s leading experts on salt poisoning, told the court that none of the scenarios painted by the prosecution made sense, given all of the cases of salt poisoning he had seen:
Intentional salt poisoning, the doctor went on to explain, is extremely rare. When it does occur, the victims are often bottle-fed babies whose food supply can be easily tampered with. Moritz stated that there was only one documented case in which an older child—a five-year-old—was poisoned with salt, and there were obvious signs of a struggle, including lacerations to his lips and gums. Yet Andrew had no such lacerations. Typically, Moritz added, someone who salt-poisons a child is mentally ill or a drug addict and has a well-documented history of child abuse. “So what we’re seeing in this case does not fit with any cases of intentional salt poisoning in the literature,” Moritz said.
Judge Longoria periodically glanced down at the doctor when he spoke of children poisoning themselves, studying him with skepticism. Moritz described how “voluntary salt intoxication” almost uniformly happened to children who fit a narrow profile: they were between the ages of one and six, they had been in the foster system or were from abusive homes, and they had some form of eating disorder, such as pica. Andrew, who had tried to eat everything from cigarette butts to glow sticks to toothpaste, fit this profile well.Moritz had not testified at Hannah’s trial, and his testimony would seem to have been authoritative, but Nueces County prosecutors Doug Norman and Bill Ainsworth claimed that there was nothing new and that the jury’s verdict should stand no matter what. And then Sandra Eastwood took the stand.
Eastwood admitted to being a recovering alcoholic who abused prescription diet pills during the trial. (Notice that while prosecutors will go after others who do the same, Eastwood got a free ride.) While she claimed to have turned over everything to the defense, it was clear that she was less-than-competent to give any useful information at all:
Under withering questioning from (attorney Garry) Goldstein, Eastwood answered “I don’t know” or “I don’t remember” 72 times when asked whether she recognized notes written in her handwriting, emails sent from her own account, and papers signed with her signature. “I have trouble remembering phone numbers,” she said. “I have trouble remembering what I had for lunch yesterday. I think that’s normal. I had hundreds of conversations and there were thousands of documents, so I don’t remember specifics.”When Anna Jiminez took the stand, she said that she believed that Eastwood “was not truthful,” and that Eastwood had told her there had been no vomit or vomit samples taken. She admitted that she had no proof of Eastwood’s alleged misconduct, but then added that the kind of circumstantial evidence that made her believe Eastwood had lied was the kind of evidence that gets people convicted in criminal court.
Goldstein became so exasperated with her that he asked if she remembered the trial itself. “You recall the trial, do you not?” he said. “The individual got life in prison.”
“The question is . . . ?” said Eastwood.
“Do you remember the trial?” Goldstein asked, his voice rising. “Yes,” she replied. “It ended in life without parole,” Goldstein scolded. “That means they spend the rest of their life in prison. You remember cases that have those kinds of consequences, don’t you?”
“Yes,” she said softly.
With the hearing ended, prosecutors parroted their own views that the hearing had produced nothing to make them change their minds about Hannah Overton’s guilt. However, it is a very rare prosecutor who even admits that any conviction was wrong and Texas prosecutors are, well, Texas prosecutors: even when the evidence against them is overwhelming, they make up fantasy stories or just lie.
I have no idea how this case will end. Judge Longoria, as one might expect, ignored all of the medical evidence given to him and recommended that Overton not receive a new trial. However, he does not have the final say in this situation. In retrospect, there was no way that Longoria ever would admit to having made errors during Overton’s 2007 show trial, and it is a rare judge anywhere that will admit to having been wrong. Nonetheless, I imagine that with the media now questioning the verdict with the same ferocity that they once condemned Overton, even the Texas courts cannot ignore the firestorm. So, while it seems certain that Longoria will claim that “no new evidence” was introduced during the hearing, his superiors will overrule him.
As I see it, however, this case is much more than just another example of prosecutors bringing junk science into the courtroom and trying to make facts fit their narratives. The real story is that nothing is done about it, and that is because the U.S. Supreme Court – and especially the conservative wing – has torn down all of the fences that are needed to give ordinary citizens an opportunity to keep police, prosecutors, and judges honest.
In decision after decision, the SCOTUS has ruled that prosecutors must be given absolute immunity from lawsuits filed by people wrongfully convicted. True, the high court has claimed that official remedies exist such as criminal prosecution for wrongdoing or discipline by various state bars, including disbarment.
While this may sound good, one should remember that the disbarment of Duke lacrosse prosecutor Michael Nifong was extraordinary precisely because such actions by a state bar are extremely rare. Two years ago, I spoke to a member of the Georgia State Bar about extreme misconduct by two prosecutors in the district where I once lived, citing chapter and verse from the Georgia State Bar Rules for Prosecutors, and the woman to whom I spoke blew it off. “They were just doing their jobs,” she replied.
I asked, “Do you mean to tell me that suborning perjury (and the perjury was obvious, and some of the dishonest witnesses even have admitted to lying since the particular trial), lying to jurors during the closing arguments, making outrageous public comments, disrupting the trial with catcalls and loud noises, fabricating evidence and such are ‘their jobs’?” She hung up.
While it may sound highly official that prosecutors, police, and judges have government agencies which can levy charges and punishment upon them when they engage in misconduct, in truth, these agencies really are the proverbial foxes guarding the hen houses. Lawsuits filed by people actually injured by misconduct, however, are the only real mechanism that people outside the employment of government can employ to gain at least some matter of redress. Texas happens to be a big offender, but the problem is universal in this country.
Government agents in the “justice” system protect their own, as those entrusted with overseeing wrongdoing within their ranks operate according to a perverse logic: if the public were to see just how often misconduct and wrongdoing are part of the prosecutorial process, then the public would lose confidence in the honesty of the people engaging in misconduct and wrongdoing, and then might question that system that sends innocent people to prison or even their deaths. Got that?
Thomas DiLorenzo has written more than once that the government now has become the final judge and arbiter of its own actions, which destroys any meaningful systems of accountability. While government repeatedly tears down the fences that restrict the actions of government agents, it increasingly is erecting arbitrary fences around everyone else who is not part of the “club.” In the situation of prosecutorial misconduct, the problem is not “a few bad apples,” as prosecutors, judges, and the media tell us ad nauseum.
No, the barrel itself is rotten, and the few good apples that are left either are corrupted, compromised, or get out before they lose their souls.