Grandmother on trial in girl's running death testifies

AP News
Posted: Mar 18, 2015 3:48 PM

GADSDEN, Ala. (AP) — An Alabama woman charged in her granddaughter's running death testified Wednesday that she would "rather die" than hurt the little girl, and denied it would have even been possible to make her run as punishment, as prosecutors contend happened.

Joyce Hardin Garrard took the witness stand to say she never intended any harm to 9-year-old Savannah Hardin.

"I pray for her every day," Garrard said of the child, wiping tears from her eyes.

Prosecutors contend the woman made the girl run for hours as punishment for a lie, leading to her collapse and death in a hospital days later.

Testimony concluded Wednesday, and closing arguments are expected Friday.

After testimony concluded, the defense asked the judge to acquit Garrard, saying prosecutors failed to prove she intended to kill the girl. Judge Billy Ogletree denied the motion.

Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty, but jurors could also consider lesser charges.

Garrard initially denied the girl had run any faster than a trot on Feb. 17, 2012, the day she fell unconscious with seizures that evidence showed were caused by low sodium levels.

But later, during cross-examination, Garrard testified she was training the girl to win foot races at school. She said Savannah loved to run and it was impossible to force the child to run.

"You can't make Savannah do anything. Bottom line. You can't do it," she told a prosecutor.

When defense attorney Richard Rhea asked if she would have done anything to hurt Savannah or any other grandchildren, Garrard replied: "I'd rather die first."

The 49-year-old Garrard said she and Savannah had been in the yard picking up sticks and talking, taking frequent breaks to get a drink of water and to play. She said she was telling Savannah the importance of not lying.

"I was picking up sticks with her because I felt just as responsible for her lying as she was," Garrard testified.

Garrard added to her story during cross-examination, telling prosecutor Marcus Reid she was also teaching the girl how to run faster that day.

"(Savannah) asked me to coach her. Instead of coming in second in her running class at school she wanted to come in first," said Garrard.

Garrard said she told the girl "don't stop" — in line with testimony by prosecution witnesses who said the woman forced the child to run — but only because Savannah tended to quit running before reaching the finish line in races.

Garrard said she and Savannah ran "a bunch" that afternoon, nearly always together.

"If she was running I was running," said the woman.

Reid accused Garrard of having selective memory and replayed a school bus surveillance video in which Garrard is heard discussing punishment for lies and candy and telling the driver the girl was "gonna run 'til I tell her to stop."

"Mrs. Garrard, who are we going to believe, you or our lying eyes?" Reid asked.

Garrard said Savannah was such an active child the only way to hold her attention was to keep her moving. That's why the two spent time outdoors picking up sticks, she said.

"We was hooting and hollering, fussing back and forth," Garrard said.

Garrard said they picked up sticks for 40 minutes maximum, but also spent much of the day in the yard and inside. She said Savannah told her she had to go to the bathroom and they were racing into the house when the girl fell backward. Garrard said that's when she told Savannah's stepmother, Jessica Mae Hardin, to call 911.

"Did you have some intent to hurt Savannah?" Rhea asked.

"Not that day or any other day," Garrard replied.

The girl's stepmother is awaiting trial on a murder charge in the girl's death. Authorities contend she sat by without intervening while the older woman forced the girl to run until she dropped.

Reid suggested that Garrard improperly took over Savannah's discipline against the advice of a counselor who said she was too involved.

Jurors were sent home Wednesday and instructed not to go to work Thursday.