Fireworks in grandmother's trial over girl's running death

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Posted: Mar 11, 2015 8:56 PM
Fireworks in grandmother's trial over girl's running death

GADSDEN, Ala. (AP) — Emotions boiled over Wednesday in the capital murder trial of an Alabama woman accused of running her 9-year-old granddaughter to death, with the defense accusing the state of withholding key evidence and a prosecutor cursing angrily in front of jurors.

Etowah County Circuit Judge Billy Ogletree refused a defense request to declare a mistrial in the case against Joyce Hardin Garrard, but prosecutors withdrew a medical witness who was on the stand when the flare-up occurred.

The judge then immediately gave jurors a two-hour lunch break and later refused a defense request to dismiss the charges due to alleged misconduct by prosecutors.

The fireworks came on the third day of prosecution testimony against Garrard, who prosecutors allege killed 9-year-old Savannah Hardin by making her run and carry wood for hours as punishment for a lie about candy.

The defense hasn't denied that the girl ran outside her home in rural northeast Alabama on Feb. 17, 2012. But Garrard's lawyers do deny that the woman had any intention of harming the girl.

Garrard told investigators the girl wanted to run and get faster after finishing second in a race at school, according to police testimony.

Dr. Emily Ward, a former state medical examiner who performed the autopsy on Savannah Hardin, said the girl died of seizures linked to abnormally low sodium levels that were caused by "prolonged physical exertion and heat exhaustion."

Ward rejected defense claims that the low sodium level was caused by over-hydration, saying instead it appeared the child was dehydrated.

Earlier, Joyce Garrard kept her chin buried in her chest looking downward as jurors saw autopsy photos displayed on a large screen in the darkened courtroom. Garrard's husband sat behind her in the audience, wiping away tears and looking away from the screen.

The girl's left arm had three bruises that could have been caused by carrying firewood, Ward testified.

Ward was allowed to testify after the judge overruled defense objections claiming the autopsy was improperly ordered.

The trial has been mostly orderly, with the judge holding multiple talks with attorneys at his bench in hushed voices. That changed when medical scribe Renee Jones took the stand for the state as jurors watched.

Parts of the attorneys' discussion were audible to spectators. As the lawyers talked with Ogletree, defense attorney Dani Bone complained that prosecutors were now claiming that hospital records showing the child was "alert and oriented" after an ambulance ride were incorrect.

"We were not provided this 'mistake,'" Bone said loudly, the back of his neck reddening.

It was a potentially big point for Garrard: Evidence that showed the girl recovered for a time before slipping back into unconsciousness and dying could help her defense, which previously argued that medical problems aside from exertion might have contributed to her death.

Bone asked for a mistrial, but the judge refused. When testimony resumed, Jones said Savannah was still and quiet when she saw her.

"She wasn't talking to anybody or sitting up on a cot. She was just lying there," Jones said.

Referring to a medical record, Jones read a note that apparently described the child as being "alert and oriented to person, place and time" without visible neurological damage after arriving at the hospital. She didn't explain the significance of the observation.

The judge called attorneys back to his desk. After a few minutes, a member of the prosecution team told Bone to "shut the hell up." It wasn't clear who made the remark, which was audible to jurors.

Stepping away from the desk, District Attorney Jimmie Harp said the prosecution was withdrawing Jones as a witness but might call her again. Some jurors appeared perplexed by the drama.

The defense asked Ogletree to dismiss charges citing the dispute over Jones, but he refused.

Kristen Green, who met Garrard in the waiting room at Children's of Alabama, the Birmingham hospital where the child died, testified that Garrard didn't seem sad over Savannah's condition, "just sort of numb."

Green, whose daughter was being treated in the hospital while Savannah was there, said Garrard cursed angrily when told one of her granddaughter's teachers had called the waiting room.

The judge said the trial would take a break Thursday and resume Friday, but he didn't announce the reason.