1st trial in girl's running death previews stepmom's case

AP News
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Posted: Mar 22, 2015 2:49 PM
1st trial in girl's running death previews stepmom's case

GADSDEN, Ala. (AP) — The capital murder trial of an Alabama woman convicted of running her granddaughter to death as punishment provided a window into the case against the girl's stepmother, who is awaiting trial on a murder charge.

While grandmother Joyce Hardin Garrard was in the yard verbally prodding 9-year-old Savannah Hardin to run and pick up sticks, witnesses and attorneys said, stepmother Jessica Mae Hardin watched idly from a distance, seemingly immersed in her laptop computer.

And with Savannah struggling to keep going and near the point of collapse, Hardin went inside so she wouldn't have to keep watching the girl's torment, a prosecutor suggested.

Later, it was Hardin who called 911 and told authorities the girl had collapsed and was having a seizure, but only at Garrard's direction. Savannah died within days in a hospital after being taken off life support.

Convicted late Friday, Garrard faces only two options — death or life without parole. Jurors will hear more evidence Monday before making a sentencing recommendation to Circuit Judge Billy Ogletree, who has the final decision.

Prosecutors portrayed Garrard as a domineering grandmother who controlled Savannah's punishment despite the advice of a counselor, but they say Hardin shares blame, too.

Authorities contend Hardin, who was married to Garrard's son Robert, should go to prison for failing to help her stepdaughter during the child's ordeal on Feb. 17, 2012. Her refusal to come to the girl's aid is tantamount to murder, the state has argued.

Hardin, 30, has pleaded not guilty. She is free on $150,000 bond awaiting trial while prosecutors concentrate first on Garrard, charged with the more serious offense of capital murder. No trial date is set for Hardin, who was pregnant when Savannah died and gave birth while in police custody following her arrest.

Hardin's attorneys are barred from commenting publicly because of a gag order imposed by the judge, but they previously suggested the case against their client was based on rumors.

"Unfortunately, whenever a child passes, our society wants to place blame, our media wants to sensationalize and our elected officials want to make grandiose statements that are not based on facts," Hardin's lawyers said in a statement three years ago.

Hardin was listed among the potential witnesses in Garrard's trial, but she never appeared in court. There's been little action in her case because authorities gave precedence to prosecuting the other woman.

Now, with Garrard convicted, attorneys could begin moving forward toward a trial or possible plea agreement for Hardin.

Garrard's son Robert Hardin was working in Pakistan as a State Department contractor at the time of Savannah's death, leaving Jessica Hardin to deal with Savannah and their younger son. Garrard testified that Hardin is no longer is with her son, but it wasn't clear during testimony exactly what has become of the woman.

When jurors listened to a recording of the 911 call that followed Savannah's collapse at her rural home, Hardin's voice was the first thing they heard from the scene.

"My daughter had a seizure," she told an operator. The operator asks what happened, but Hardin never mentions the hours of running that authorities contend led to the girl's death.

Three days later in a hospital, with the decision made to turn off the life-support machines that were keeping Savannah alive, Garrard and Hardin worked together to keep the details of the girl's death quiet, prosecutor Marcus Reid suggested.

With Garrard on the stand, Reid asked the woman whether she remembered holding Hardin's face in her hands and telling her: "You've got to pull it together. There's a lot on the line."

Garrard said she didn't recall that happening, prompting Reid to suggest she was lying. Similar testimony could occur someday with Hardin on the stand.