Testimony on relationship of girl, grandma in running case

AP News
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Posted: Mar 17, 2015 4:51 PM

GADSDEN, Ala. (AP) — Jurors received differing pictures of the relationship between an Alabama woman and the granddaughter she is accused of running to death, with a principal testifying Tuesday that she saw no problems and a doctor saying she was worried about odd family dynamics.

The contrasting testimony came as the defense also tried to raise new doubts about the victim's autopsy.

Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against Joyce Hardin Garrard, 49. She is accused of making 9-year-old granddaughter Savannah Hardin run for hours as punishment for a lie about candy on Feb. 17, 2012.

The girl collapsed and died days later, and neighbors testified earlier that they saw the woman forcing the girl to run even after she vomited and begged to stop.

Garrard, of Boaz, says she is innocent, and two defense witnesses who passed the property that day have testified that they only saw Garrard and the child picking up sticks, not any running.

Longtime elementary school principal Donna Joy Bone Johnson testified that she didn't see any cause for concern in the relationship between Garrard and the girl, who attended her school. Johnson portrayed Garrard as the primary caregiver for the girl, the daughter of Garrard's son Robert Hardin, who was overseas at the time.

Savannah was "a competitor" who wanted to do well in school and athletics, Johnson said, and Garrard often came to school to talk with her about Savannah's behavior or seek advice.

"I've been doing this a long time. There were no red flags," said Johnson, the sister of Garrard's lead attorney, Dani Bone.

The child's pediatrician testified that she worried about the relationship between Garrard, the child, and stepmother Jessica Mae Hardin, who also is charged in the girl's death.

Dr. Deborah Smith said the relationship among the three "was not a normal dynamic" and that she had considered contacting authorities but didn't. Smith didn't explain exactly what she considered to be odd, and a prosecutor didn't press her.

Earlier prosecution witnesses testified that Garrard was in the yard with the child for hours making her run and pick up sticks and firewood while Hardin sat on the porch with a laptop computer.

Garrard is charged with capital murder while Hardin faces the lesser charge of murder for allegedly failing to intervene and help the child.

The defense has tried to show that the child's autopsy was flawed and doesn't match the allegations from Garrard's indictment. Defense lawyers called a former forensics worker to try to bolster those claims.

Chris Crow, who helped Dr. Emily Ward with the post-mortem investigation, testified that a report indicated Ward didn't have the girl's medical records before conducting the autopsy. The final autopsy report wasn't completed until weeks after Garrard already had been indicted, he said.

Crow said the autopsy took Ward only an hour, which he described as "pretty quick" for such an examination.

But Crow testified under cross-examination that Ward was more experienced than other pathologists in her office, possibly accounting for her speed.

And Crow said that he, Ward and others attended a meeting during which prosecutors were given detailed medical information about the girl's death before Garrard was charged, even though the final autopsy wasn't complete.

The autopsy blamed the girl's death on seizures caused by a low sodium level linked to prolonged physical exertion and heat exhaustion.

A defense expert, former state medical examiner Dr. James Lauridson, raised questions about the girl's autopsy.

Lauridson agreed with autopsy results that showed the girl's death was linked to seizures and extreme exercise.

"I agree that this case would not have happened had there not been physical exertion," he said.

But Lauridson disagreed with Ward, who said the girl was dehydrated and suffered heat exhaustion. Savannah's low sodium levels actually were caused by overhydration, said Lauridson, and there were no signs of heat illness.

"Too much water caused too low salt," said Lauridson.

He said he would have ruled the manner of death undetermined, rather than homicide.