Thursday, January 05, 2012

Exculpatory forensics not disclosed to defense in capital salt poisoning case

Via Food Safety News, Pam Colloff at Texas Monthly has a new story out this month about Hannah Overton, sentenced to life without parole for allegedly poisoning her child with large quantities of salt, questioning the conviction based on forensic evidence about stomach contents that wasn't turned over to the defense:
Dr. Michael Moritz, clinical director of pediatric nephrology at Children's Hospital in Pittsburg, is a specialist in children's kidney diseases. According to Texas Monthly, he published a seminal paper on salt poisoning in 2007.

Moritz was brought in when Cynthia Orr, Overton's appellate attorney discovered the records of Burd's stomach contents not previously disclosed to the defense. They showed salt levels were not elevated with the boy arrived at the urgent care clinic.

In his earlier research, Moritz found children who accidentally ingest too much salt often fit a narrow profile, living in the foster system or being from abusive homes, and suffering from a disorder known as pica.

While Burd was depicted by Texas prosecutors as being a "normal" four-year-old boy, TM's Pamela Colloff provides extensive biographical details on the Overtons and the foster boy they wanted to adopt that tell otherwise. Andrew's adoption supervisor suspected the boy had pica, an eating disorder.

It involves eating largely non-nutritive substances, sometime including clay or chalk or other materials.

Moritz said the stomach contents report is evidence no murder was committed.  "If someone was trying to murder Andrew, they would have restrained him and prevented him from drinking water, " Moritz's affidavit says.  "The very dilute gastric sodium contents suggest...that he had unrestricted access to water."

Moritz goes on to say: "There is not a single piece of evidence which suggests that Hannah Overton salt-poisoned Andrew."  He says it is far more likely Andrew "salt-poisoned himself."

Currently again on appeal to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, Overton's conviction was made possible by jury instructions.  It made no difference whether Overton forced the boy to eat salt or he did it on his own and she failed to get him timely medical attention.
Read Colloff's whole story here.


dfisher said...

This case like most TX child death cases went wrong with the county medical examiner.

The TX Code of Criminal Procedure, Art. 49.25, sec. 2 mandates the commissioners court "Appoint" the medical examiner.

The Nueces Co. Commissioners never appointed their medical examiner and until I confronted the county last year, the medical examiner never execute the Statement of appointment and oath of Office, which is required under Art. XVI of the TX Constitution.

When a county medical examiner conducts an "Inquest" and performs an autopsy, he dose so under Judicial Authority, not as a doctor. In 2009 the First Court of Appeals, in case #01-07-00951-CV Held:

"Among the many arguments asserted by the various amici in this case is the contention that the Medical Examiner of Harris County is a judicial officer and that it is manifestly improper for a district court to enjoin him from performing duties which he deems–in a valid exercise of his discretion—to be necessary and required of him by statute. We agree that the filing of a mandamus is normally the proper procedure by which to contest the discretionary acts of an official such as the Medical Examiner. (emphasis added)"

Inquest are judicial function transferred form the Justice of the Peace to the medical examiner. When conducting an inquest a medical examiner can empanel a jury, set bonds and issue arrest warrants, all judicial functions.
Under the TX Constitution and Court rulings, all persons with judicial powers fall under article XVI and are void if they have not filed the Statement of appointment and Oath of Office.

The Habeas attorney for defendant Hannah Overton just learned the medical examiner's trial testimony, Autopsy, autopsy report, and all other forensic reports tied to the autopsy were illegally obtained, and were introduced into evidence in violation of both Texas and federal statutes.

Anonymous said...

dfisher is clearly incorrect that this was a situation of medical examination gone wrong. A second medical examiner reviewed and testified at the trial for the defense. The issue of pica and the boy's eating issues was presented at trial. And the jury did not find the mother guilty because they believed that she had poisoned the child. When the jury was polled after the verdict, they were of one mind in believing that she had not poisoned the child. She was found guilty of murder by ommission, for not taking the child to the hospital soon enough. So it's more likely than not that the CCA will find that the stomach contents test results would have made no difference to the outcome. That's not to say that the jury reached the right conclusion. But it does seem pretty clear that this is an issue of legal process, and not a forensic science issue.

Anonymous said...

DFisher is on point. The proclamations of suicide and homicide rulings begin with the medical examiners.....and we all know there are serious, serious issues with ME offices in Texas. To turn our backs to prosecutorial misconduct is one thing but to dismiss the consequences of flawed rulings by MEs is equally if not moreso egregious.

Thank you to Grits for Breakfast for reporting real news and to DFisher for your posts.

Anonymous said...

12:40 - Sorry, I don't see that. The jury had enough information to conclude that the mother had not poisoned her child. That is what they said, per the article. So in regard to the medical testimony, the jury decided correctly. There may have been differences of opinion on the part of the experts, but the bottom line conclusion was correctly reached.

So the sole issue here is the directions to the jury, and their understanding of the directions. That is a purely legal problem.

I understand that Dfisher has a bug in his bonnet that is agitated by any mention of the term "medical examiner" in any context, and so it's not surprising that he would launch into one of his trademark tangential diatribes which bear no relationship to the issues at hand. Such is to be expected.

However, there need be no expectation that others buy into that kind of malarky.