GADSDEN, Ala. – An Alabama woman convicted of running her 9-year-old granddaughter to death as punishment for lying about candy was sentenced Monday to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Joyce Hardin Garrard, the diminutive grandmother whom prosecutors depicted as the "drill sergeant from hell," stood before the judge, and told him if she could have anything in the world, it would be to have her granddaughter Savannah back with her today.
Garrard gripped the hand of her defense attorney as Etowah County Circuit Judge Billy Ogletree said he would uphold a jury's recommendation of life without parole, rather than death by lethal injection. Her husband, Johnny Garrard, cradled another of the couple's grandchildren as the sentence was read.
Prosecutors said Garrard forced 9-year-old Savannah Hardin to run for hours after school after Garrard became enraged over the child's lie. A jury convicted Garrard of capital murder in March and recommended the life sentence over death by a 7-5 vote.
"We accept the recommendation that the jury made," Etowah County District Attorney Jimmie Harp told Ogletree.
Outside the courtroom after the sentencing, Johnny Garrard said he was outraged by the verdict because his wife wasn't guilty.
"It's wrong. It's plain wrong. I know what happened that day. And what they say happened, is not what happened. It's all just wrong," Garrard said.
Garrard denied that she meant to harm the child. She told investigators the girl wanted to run and get faster after finishing second in a race at school, according to police testimony.
Prosecutors depicted Garrard as a woman who became so enraged that she made the child run until she dropped.
Testimony at trial showed that Savannah Hardin collapsed and vomited in 2012 outside her rural home following an afternoon of running and carrying sticks. She died several days later in a hospital after doctors removed her from life support. Surveillance video from a school bus shown to a jury showed Garrard talking with the bus driver, Raenna Holmes, about Savannah taking candy without paying from another student who was selling it. Garrard told Holmes: "She's going to run until I tell her to stop." Investigators said an autopsy revealed the girl was severely dehydrated and compared her condition to that of an athlete who ran a marathon without drinking any water. Defense lawyers challenged the autopsy findings.
The trial and other court documents portrayed Savannah as a sweet child who loved horses, cheerleading and the competition of running at school. A neighbor testified at the trial that he saw the girl running and carrying firewood and sticks over a two-hour period as he came and went from his home.
Prosecutors during the trial said the 9-year-old girl suffered a painful death at the hands of a woman who was supposed to protect her, her grandmother. A life sentence is justified, Harp said, and Garrard is not getting off lightly.
"Life without parole in the state of Alabama means you come out of Julia Tutwiler prison in a pine box," Harp said after the sentencing.
"We talk about the death penalty but life inside Julia Tutwiler prison ... until the point she ceases to exist, is a death sentence to me. It's just a question of when that death occurs," Harp said.
Garrard is expected to be transferred to Alabama's only prison for women this week.
Defense lawyer Dani Bone said he was pleased the judge and prosecutor agreed to uphold the jury's recommendation of a life sentence, instead of the death penalty.
"Joyce handled this like a Christian woman with strong faith," Bone said.
The child's stepmother, Jessica Mae Hardin, is charged with murder and awaiting a separate trial.