GADSDEN, Ala. (AP) — An Alabama woman charged with capital murder in the death of her granddaughter forced the girl to run for more than three hours carrying sticks and firewood as a punishment for lying, prosecutors said Monday.
Joyce Garrard is accused of forcing 9-year-old Savannah Hardin to run until she died as punishment for a lie about eating candy on the school bus. She could be sentenced either to death or life without parole if convicted.
Assistant district attorney Marcus Reid said during opening statements in a standing-room-only courtroom that jurors would hear from neighbors who say they heard and saw what happened to Savannah the day she died.
Defense attorney Dani Bone tried to raise doubt about medical evidence in the case by showing jurors a version of the indictment, which mentioned severe dehydration and seizures. However, Bone said Savannah died because of a fatally low sodium level. He said the evidence will show the girl had too much water in her system, not that she was dehydrated.
Bone told jurors that prosecutors "have oversold their case to the world."
"They're trying to hoodwink you with junk science," he said. "Make them prove their case."
According to prosecutors, neighbors said Garrard yelled at the girl as she ran, forcing her to continue "like some kind of drill sergeant."
A neighbor, Chad Jacobs, said he saw the girl running and carrying firewood and sticks over a two-hour period as he came and went from his home.
"Joyce and Savannah were in the yard, and Joyce was telling Savannah to keep running," said Chad Jacobs. "She was just saying, 'Keep running, I didn't tell you to stop.'"
Jacobs said he wasn't concerned at first but eventually saw the girl "on all fours" on the ground and vomiting with Garrard pouring water over her. Paramedics arrived within minutes, he said.
When paramedics arrived, they found Savannah on the ground, "freezing cold to the touch," her clothes and shoes soaking wet, Reid said. Garrard never told the medics that the girl had been running; she said only that the girl collapsed in the yard.
Savannah wasn't supposed to eat candy because she was on medication for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and had a bladder problem, but she had eaten candy on the school bus the day before she died.
Garrard was angry that Savannah ate the candy — "but she was more upset about the lie," Reid said.
Surveillance video from a school bus shown to a jury showed Garrard talking with the bus driver, Raenna Holmes, about Savannah taking candy without paying from another student who was selling it. Garrard told Holmes: "She's going to run until I tell her to stop."
The women then talk about a bladder condition the girl had and a procedure she had related to that condition. The driver then asks, "Is she OK?"
Garrard replies: "She might be when I get about four more bottles of water in her."
Holmes said in court that she saw the girl picking up sticks in the yard but did not see her running.
"I feel partly responsible. I should have paid for those candy bars," Holmes said.
The girl's stepmother, Jessica Mae Hardin, is awaiting trial on a murder charge in the girl's death. Authorities said she failed to intervene while the older woman forced the girl to run.