In trial over girl's running death, jurors have options

AP News
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Posted: Mar 19, 2015 4:21 PM

GADSDEN, Ala. (AP) — A woman facing a potential death penalty in the running death of her 9-year-old granddaughter could be convicted of lesser charges even if jurors believe she was to blame for the girl's death.

Jurors will begin deliberations in the trial of Joyce Hardin Garrard, 49, following final instructions from the judge and closing arguments, set for Friday morning.

Garrard is charged with capital murder in the 2012 death of 9-year-old Savannah Hardin, who prosecutors say was intentionally run to death as punishment for a lie about candy. If convicted on the capital charge, Garrard faces death or life without parole; jurors would make a recommendation and the final decision would be up to the judge.

The judge has also indicated he will give jurors several options for a conviction on a lesser charge.

Garrard, of Boaz, testified she had no intention of harming the girl and denied she had forced her to run. Garrard said during cross examination that Savannah wanted Garrard to help her get faster for races at school, and they both ran "a bunch" before Savannah collapsed.

Jurors could acquit Garrard or also convict her on one of three reduced charges, according to instructions Etowah County Circuit Judge Billy Ogletree said he will deliver before deliberations begin. Ogletree said he would tell jurors they can consider lesser charges of:

—Felony murder, which carries a sentence ranging from 10 years to 99 years. State law defines this as an intentional act that leads to a death or a death caused by "extreme indifference."

—Manslaughter, a felony with a sentence ranging from two years to 20 years. Jurors would have to decide the girl died because of a reckless act, but not intentionally.

—Criminally negligent homicide, a misdemeanor with a maximum sentence of one year in prison. This could be another option if jurors believe the girl's death wasn't intentional but that Garrard was responsible.

Garrard already has been in jail awaiting trial for three years, and that time typically would be applied to any potential sentence.

Prosecutors contend Garrard refused to let Savannah stop running even after the girl was vomiting and begging for an end to the exercise. In court, they cited a school bus surveillance video that captured Garrard saying she would run the girl and teach her a lesson.