GADSDEN, Ala. (AP) — With the grandmother of a girl who was run to death headed to prison for life, authorities are now turning their attention to the stepmother who they say did nothing to help the child.
Jurors recommended life imprisonment without parole Thursday for the grandmother, Joyce Hardin Garrard, who was convicted of capital murder in the February 2012 death of 9-year-old Savannah Hardin. By a vote of 7-5 on the woman's 50th birthday, jurors opted for the life term and rejected prosecutors' pleas for the death penalty.
Etowah County Circuit Judge Billy Ogletree could still reject the jurors' suggestion and sentence the woman to death, but the chance seemed more remote after prosecutors said they would accept the jury's recommendation at the final sentencing hearing, set for May 11.
By then, authorities could be moving toward a trial for Savannah's stepmother, Jessica Mae Hardin, who is free on bond.
While prosecutors said Garrard forced the girl to run as punishment until she collapsed in a fatal seizure, Hardin is accused of sitting by idly rather than intervening. No trial date is set.
Garrard's relatives cried in the courtroom after the sentence recommendation was announced, but Garrard was stone-faced as deputies led her back to jail.
Under Alabama law, a vote of at least 10 of 12 jurors was required for the panel to recommend death. A simple majority could recommend life.
The same jury convicted Garrard of capital murder last week in a trial the defense said resulted in an unjust verdict.
"Joyce Garrard did not receive a fair trial," said defense lawyer Dani Bone.
The judge excluded medical evidence that the defense wanted to present, Bone said, and evidence indicates at least four jurors were on Facebook during the trial, despite the judge's admonitions to avoid social media and news reports.
District Attorney Jimmie Harp said he isn't worried about the case being overturned on appeal and was "very pleased" both with Garrard's conviction and the jury's recommendation.
"We believe Savannah Hardin received justice today," Harp said.
Deputy prosecutor Marcus Reid said Savannah's death might have gone unsolved if neighbors hadn't contacted investigators after she was hospitalized.
"They are heroes in this case," Reid said.
Reid had asked jurors to recommend the death penalty in closing arguments, adding that he had never prosecuted a case like this one.
"This case is the only case I know of where the perpetrator forced the victim to participate in her own death," he told jurors. "Joyce Garrard forced Savannah Hardin to help kill herself."
Prosecutors contended Garrard made the girl run as punishment for telling a lie about candy, and 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.
Garrard, who lives in Boaz, testified last week 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's help getting faster for races at school, and they both ran "a bunch" before Savannah collapsed.
Bone, the defense attorney, stood beside the jury box holding a small, dark rock and reminded jurors that in old times, the jury would participate in the execution by throwing rocks at the condemned.
He said they had a right to say, "I ain't throwing that stone."
"If you can't throw that stone, be the first one, then don't," he added.
Because Thursday was Garrard's birthday, deputies allowed her to hug relatives across the short wall that separates the front of the courtroom from the spectators before court opened in the morning.
Garrard embraced her husband, Johnny Garrard, for several minutes, rubbing his back and the back of his head as she and her relatives wept.
Afterward, she sat down at the defense table and stared at her son, Savannah's father, Robert, who was in the courtroom for the first time. He sat directly behind the prosecution table and did not appear to return the eye contact.