Ex-gym teacher testifies for defense in running death case

AP News
Posted: Mar 16, 2015 5:57 PM

GADSDEN, Ala. (AP) — A retired physical education teacher testified Monday that an Alabama girl liked to run and was trying to win an award for speed before her grandmother allegedly ran her to death three years ago.

Vicki Sanders, who taught Savannah Hardin before her death in 2012, took the stand for the defense in the capital murder trial of Joyce Hardin Garrard, 49.

Authorities contend Garrard forced the 9-year-old girl to run as punishment for a lie until she collapsed. The child died three days later.

The defense called Sanders to bolster claims that the girl liked to run and was trying to win a running award at school. Sanders said students received tokens for running and could receive awards if they defeated other classmates.

"Her goal was to win one," Sanders said. "She wanted to be in the top three."

But Sanders testified under cross-examination by District Attorney Jimmie Harp that she would never make a child run for hours or make the child continue even if he or she became ill, as authorities contend Garrard did to Savannah.

"Would you make Savannah Hardin run three hours?" asked Harp.

"No," said Sanders.

Earlier, Garrard's sister and nephew testified that they didn't see the woman forcing the child to run the day she collapsed on Feb. 17, 2012. Iva Hardin said the girl ran to a fence to wave as she passed by, and Robert John Thompson said he saw Garrard, Savannah and her stepbrother picking up sticks.

Prosecutors brought out that neither Hardin nor Thompson, her son, did more than pass the scene briefly, and neither told police what they had seen.

The defense began presenting its case after Etowah County Circuit Judge Billy Ogletree rejected a defense motion to end Garrard's trial with a verdict of acquittal. He rejected claims that prosecutors had failed to establish the possibility that the woman meant to harm the child.

The judge also short-circuited a defense effort to attack the credibility of the former state medical examiner who performed the girl's autopsy. Ogletree rejected defense attempts to show she had been disciplined for falsifying time forms unrelated to the child's autopsy.

The director of the Alabama Department of Forensic Science, Michael Sparks, testified outside jurors' presence that Dr. Emily Ward had been placed on leave during an investigation. But Sparks denied that Ward was ever suspended or disciplined.

The defense called Ward as a witness, but she wasn't at the courthouse. The judge said nothing about any sanctions Ward might face for not appearing, and it wasn't clear whether she would testify.

Testimony ended early for the day because a juror had a medical issue that needed treatment, the judge said.

A nurse who testified as the prosecution's final witness said Garrard told her Savannah was stricken while going up stairs after picking up sticks in the yard. Garrard once claimed the girl was going in to take a shower and another time that she was going to the restroom, said the nurse, Heather Elgin Gibson.

Gibson, who was working at Gadsden Regional Medical Center, said the child was unconscious and unresponsive in the emergency room. Gibson said she mistakenly "clicked a wrong button" on an electronic chart that made it appear the girl was alert at one point.

"Charting mistakes are inevitable sometimes," said Gibson.

The point was important because jurors heard another prosecution witness read a medical record that indicated the girl as "alert and oriented" after arriving at the hospital. Evidence that the girl was OK at the hospital would undermine prosecution claims that Garrard ran the girl until she collapsed.