Grandma gets life in prison for making her grand-daughter run to death

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By AL News

An Etowah County jury has recommended life in prison without parole for Joyce Hardin Garrard in the death of Savannah Hardin.

The jury vote was five for death and seven for life in prison.

Judge William “Billy” Ogletree set a sentencing hearing for May 11 at 2 p.m.

The jury, composed of 8 men and 4 women, with two male alternates, went back to begin considering its recommendation at 11:20 a.m. today.

Ogletree read the recommendation in a crowded courtroom about 3:15 p.m. Garrard gave no reaction.

Prosecutors said Garrard forced the child to run for more than three hours as punishment for lying about eating candy bars on February 17, 2012. Savannah collapsed and died days later in a Birmingham hospital. The jury found her guilty of capital murder last Friday after about three-and-a-half hours of deliberation.

Attorneys for both sides have been silent throughout a gag order imposed by the court, and today was their first chance to comment on the case.

Etowah County District Attorney Jimmie Harp said the conclusion of the trial marked the end of a long ordeal for a community shaken by an unforgettable tragedy. Harp said he saw an advocate releasing balloons in Savannah Hardin’s honor across the street from the Etowah County Judicial Building shortly after the jury recommendation.

“Justice was served,” he said. “I don’t think that a day will ever go by for me or my staff that we don’t think about Savannah Hardin.”

Harp said he will move that Ogletree follow the jury’s recommendation.

The school bus video that showed Garrard telling the driver Savannah would run “until I tell her to stop” provided the jury with a window into Garrard’s state of mind, Harp said.

“It gave her demeanor, it showed what she intended to do,” Harp said. “Very rarely do I get a case where I have a suspect on video announcing what they intend to do.”

Deputy District Attorney Marcus Reid said the jury did a good job of seeing through a “smoke screen” used to distort what happened to Savannah. He said the case would have remained unsolved if neighbors had not come forward to report what they had seen.

Sheriff Todd Entrekin said the verdict and sentencing recommendation were a vindication for the district attorney’s office, in securing a capital murder conviction when many were skeptical it could be obtained, given the unusual nature of the crime.

For the defense team, attorney Dani Bone said Garrard was thankful the decision was for life imprisonment. He said he encouraged her by saying he felt the verdict would be overturned.

“I can’t say when,” Bone said. “I do know she’s going to go home one day and be with (her husband) Johnny.”

However, he called the trial a “travesty of justice.”

“Joyce Garrard did not receive a fair trial,” he said. “I couldn’t get my case out. We are confident that there are many appeal reversible-plain error-type issues.”

Bone said the defense was excluded from submitting evidence about the care Savannah Hardin received during hospitalization. Bone also argued that jurors ignored Ogletree’s daily admonishments to avoid social media and news accounts. Defense attorneys filed a motion yesterday claiming this before putting on their witnesses on the stand.

Harp responded to those allegations by saying Ogletree thoroughly investigated the juror allegations, and that he feels there are no grounds for appeal.

Before court began today, Robert Hardin, Savannah’s father, sat watching as several members of Garrard’s family lined the partition in court, weeping and embracing her as she passed.

Garrard patted each member on the back and whispered words in his or her ear. Robert Hardin was not among them. He remained seated behind the prosecutor’s table, and had requested to sit there, Harp said. He did not talk to the media following the sentencing recommendation.

Other members of Garrard’s family also said they would not comment, one only stating she felt the trial had produced a distorted picture of Savannah’s home life and the character of Joyce Garrard.

Today was Garrard’s 50th birthday.

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