Defense Blames Heart Failure, Not Poison, in Overton Death : Trial: Attorney points to victim’s 60 visits to doctors. He argues that amounts of cyanide in woman’s body were too tiny to kill, and says her medicine may have produced the trace amounts.


A defense lawyer told jurors Tuesday that natural heart failure--not cyanide--killed the wife of Richard K. Overton, the Dana Point computer consultant accused of poisoning her to death in 1988.

Defense attorney George A. Peters said Janet Overton, a former trustee of the Capistrano Unified School District, had signs of heart trouble and a host of other ailments for months before she collapsed at the family’s home and died.

Officials ruled the death a poisoning after tests found cyanide in the stomach contents and blood.


But Overton’s defense attorney contends that the amounts were too tiny to kill and could have been produced by a mix of the medications Janet Overton took.

“Richard Overton is not guilty of murder,” Peters said during the second day of Overton’s retrial in Superior Court. “Janet Overton was not poisoned.”

Relying on Richard Overton’s diaries to depict a marriage fraught with infidelity and discord, prosecutors say the defendant used cyanide to kill his 46-year-old wife after slipping her nonfatal doses of another chemical for years.

Overton, 66, first went on trial in 1992 but that ended in a mistrial after his former defense lawyer suffered a severe depression and was unable to work on the case. The new trial began Monday. Overton has maintained his innocence.

Peters called his client a complicated man who grew up a “poor boy from west Texas” and then became a nationally known computer scientist with a doctorate in psychology. Peters said the couple also had a “complicated” marriage.

Richard Overton “wanted to keep this marriage together even though he was not a perfect husband and Jan was a less-than-perfect wife,” Peters said.

Jurors faced a barrage of chemistry symbols and terms as Peters used charts to argue that Janet Overton died an “unexpected, tragic, but natural death” on Jan. 24, 1988.

Peters said she visited doctors 60 times in the year before her death with skin lesions and ulcers and was briefly hospitalized after fainting and vomiting blood.

Peters said that Janet Overton died of cardiac arrhythmia, an abnormal beating of the heart caused by an internal electrical failure. Peters said her heart had scars that could indicate long-term problems, and that she had felt pain in her arms and shoulders that could presage heart trouble.

Peters told jurors that the amount of cyanide in Janet Overton’s blood was lower than might be found naturally in healthy people. Natural cyanide exists in fruits and vegetables and can be produced in the body after death if the right food and chemicals are present, he said.

Peters said Janet Overton’s ulcer medicine can mix with some chemicals to make cyanide.

Peters also took aim at a prosecution charge that Overton poisoned his wife with selenium for years, saying experts will testify that she did not suffer chronic selenium poisoning.

Prosecutors said Overton also put drain cleaner and prescription drugs into the milk and coffee of a previous wife in the early 1970s. Both women periodically suffered nearly identical symptoms: nausea, lesions, peeling and discolored feet.

The first prosecution witness was Eric Overton, a son who was helping Janet Overton load the family van for a whale-watching outing when she collapsed in the driveway. “I was just very scared. I didn’t know what to do,” said Eric Overton, now 24.

Eric Overton said he and his father later decided that Janet Overton could not have committed suicide and wondered who could have killed her.