GADSDEN, Ala. – A defense expert said in dramatic testimony Tuesday that he wouldn't classify the death of a young girl as a homicide even though her grandmother is accused of running her to death, yet he agreed the child wouldn't have died without exhausting physical exertion.
Questioned by an attorney for Joyce Hardin Garrard at her capital murder trial, forensic pathologist Dr. James Lauridson indicated he couldn't say someone else caused the death of Savannah Hardin, 9.
"Knowing what I know I would not have called this a homicide, I would have called it indeterminate," said Lauridson, retired chief medical examiner for Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences.
Lauridson also disagreed with autopsy findings that concluded the girl suffered from heat exhaustion and dehydration. Lauridson — using water, dye and a plastic skull to demonstrate sodium deficiency — said the girl was actually over-hydrated and had no signs of heat illness.
Jurors paid close attention to Lauridson, standing and craning their necks to follow his testimony. Garrard began crying after he said her granddaughter's death wasn't a homicide.
But under cross-examination by prosecutor Marcus Reid, Lauridson admitted he didn't have all the witness statements and police files that were available to Dr. Emily Ward, the state pathologist who ruled that the girl's death was a homicide. Her decision was crucial to the decision to charge Garrard.
Neighbors have testified they saw the 49-year-old Boaz woman forcing the girl to keep running even after she was vomiting and begging to stop, and Reid drove home the point to jurors.
"It was running that killed her. Isn't that right?" Reid asked Lauridson.
"Yes," Lauridson replied.
Lauridson's testimony built upon that of former forensic investigator Chris Crow, who helped Ward with the post-mortem investigation of Savannah's death.
Crow testified that a report indicated Ward didn't have the girl's medical records before conducting the autopsy. The final autopsy report wasn't completed until weeks after Garrard already had been indicted, he said.
Crow said the autopsy took Ward only an hour, which he described as "pretty quick" for such an examination. But Crow testified under cross-examination that Ward was more experienced than other pathologists in her office, possibly accounting for her speed, and Ward was in a meeting where authorities detailed their evidence.
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against Garrard, who is accused of making the girl run for hours as punishment for a lie about candy on Feb. 17, 2012.
Garrard, of Boaz, says she is innocent.
Before testimony about the autopsy, jurors received differing pictures of the relationship between Garrard and her granddaughter.
Longtime elementary school principal Donna Joy Bone Johnson testified that she didn't see any cause for concern in the relationship between Garrard and the girl, who attended her school. Johnson portrayed Garrard as the primary caregiver for the girl, the daughter of Garrard's son Robert Hardin, who was overseas at the time.
Savannah was "a competitor" who wanted to do well in school and athletics, Johnson said, and Garrard often came to school to talk with her about Savannah's behavior or seek advice.
"I've been doing this a long time. There were no red flags," said Johnson, the sister of Garrard's lead attorney, Dani Bone.
Earlier, the child's pediatrician testified that she worried about the relationship between Garrard, the child, and stepmother Jessica Mae Hardin, who also is charged in the girl's death.
Dr. Deborah Smith said the relationship among the three "was not a normal dynamic" and that she had considered contacting authorities but didn't. Smith didn't explain exactly what she considered to be odd, and a prosecutor didn't press her.
Garrard is charged with capital murder while Hardin faces the lesser charge of murder for allegedly failing to intervene and help the child.