Convicted in girl's running death, grandma faces death

AP News
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Posted: Mar 21, 2015 6:10 AM
Convicted in girl's running death, grandma faces death

GADSDEN, Ala. (AP) — Jurors who convicted an Alabama woman in the running death of her 9-year-old granddaughter soon must decide whether to recommend she should die for the crime or spend the rest of her life in prison.

A jury convicted 49-year-old Joyce Hardin Garrard late Friday in the February 2012 death of Savannah Hardin, siding with prosecutors who depicted Garrard as a "drill sergeant from hell," a domineering taskmaster so enraged over a lie about candy that she made the girl run until she dropped.

The sentencing phase — a mini-trial within the trial — is to begin Monday, the judge said. The jury will hear additional testimony and make a decision on whether to recommend life without parole or death for Garrard, but the final decision is up to Circuit Judge Billy Ogletree under Alabama law.

Garrard showed no reaction when the verdict was read after 3½ hours of deliberations, but she hugged her three attorneys before being led away by deputies. She glared toward the audience as she walked out silently.

Relatives sitting behind her cried loudly. Defense attorney Dani Bone laid his head on the table in front of him after the verdict; Garrard's husband Johnny sat behind her, hugging a crying daughter who ran from the courtroom sobbing.

Authorities claimed the woman forced Savannah to run and carry wood for hours as punishment for a lie about candy. Savannah eventually had a seizure and died three days later in a hospital.

"That lady right there ran her granddaughter until she was on her knees begging, 'I've got to stop,'" District Attorney Jimmie Harp said in closing arguments.

Speaking between sobs and tears of his own during his closing arguments, Bone suggested a guilty verdict could result in criminal charges against youth sports coaches should a player get injured during a game.

"If you do what they want you to do ... every single coach out there is going to quit within 30 seconds," Bone had argued. "If a kid slides into second and skins his knee, what's the charge going to be?"

Garrard earlier had testified she only made the girl pick up sticks in her yard as punishment on the day of her collapse. Garrard testified that the girl did run, but only as practice for races at school. She said she meant the child no harm.

Prosecutors contended that 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.

In closing arguments before deliberations, Assistant District Attorney Carol Griffith said Garrard killed the child intentionally by berating her and making her run around the yard picking up sticks

"She was tortured," Griffith said.

Defense attorney Richard Rhea had portrayed his client as a devoted grandmother who was helping to look after Savannah while the girl's father was overseas working as a contractor for the U.S. State Department.

Some witnesses who testified about seeing Garrard force Savannah to run seemed more upset in recalling the scene from the stand than Garrard appeared to be, Griffith said. But Rhea urged jurors to ask why none of the witnesses intervened if they thought the abuse was so awful that day.

He said, "I think we have all had the thought: 'If it was that bad, why didn't they do something?'" He said witnesses didn't notify police about their concerns until days later, after they heard girl was on life support.

"Then it becomes 'Oh yeah, I witnessed boot camp. I witnessed the drill sergeant from hell,'" he said.

Garrard has been in jail awaiting trial for three years. The child's stepmother, Jessica Mae Hardin, is free on bond awaiting trial on a murder charge for allegedly failing to intervene as Garrard made Savannah run.

No trial date is set for Hardin, who has pleaded not guilty.