GADSDEN, Ala. – An Alabama jury convicted a woman of capital murder in the running death of her 9-year-old granddaughter on Friday, rejecting claims that she didn't mean to harm the girl while she was punishing the child for a lie.
Joyce Hardin Garrard faces a penalty of death or life without parole for the February 2012 death of Savannah Hardin.
Garrard showed no reaction when the verdict was read, but she hugged her three attorneys before being led out of court by deputies. She glared toward the audience as she walked out silently.
Relatives sitting behind her began to cry loudly. Defense attorney Dani Bone laid his head on the table in front of him after the verdict, delivered after about 3½ hours of deliberation. Garrard's husband Johnny sat behind her, hugging a crying daughter before the woman ran from the courtroom sobbing.
The judge said the sentencing phase — a mini-trial within the trial — will begin Monday. Jurors will hear additional testimony and make a decision on whether to recommend life without parole or death, but the final decision is up to the judge under Alabama law.
Authorities claimed the 49-year-old woman forced Savannah to run and carry wood for hours as punishment for a lie about candy. Savannah eventually had a seizure and died three days later in a hospital.
The defense denied the woman meant the girl any harm, but jurors rejected that claim.
Garrard had testified she only made the girl pick up sticks in her yard as punishment the day of her collapse. Garrard testified that the girl did run, but only as practice for races at school.
Prosecutors contended that Garrard 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.
In closing arguments before deliberations, Assistant District Attorney Carol Griffith said Garrard killed the child intentionally by berating her and making her run around the yard picking up sticks
"She was tortured," Griffith said.
Defense attorney Richard Rhea had portrayed his client as a devoted grandmother who was helping to look after 9-year-old Savannah while the girl's father was overseas working as a contractor for the U.S. State Department.
Some witnesses who testified about seeing Garrard force Savannah to run seemed more upset in recalling the scene from the stand than Garrard appeared to be, Griffith said.
But Rhea urged jurors to ask why none of the witnesses intervened if they thought the abuse was so awful that day.
He said, "I think we have all had the thought: 'If it was that bad, why didn't they do something?'" He said witnesses didn't notify police about their concerns until days later, after they heard girl was on life support.
"Then it becomes 'Oh yeah, I witnessed boot camp. I witnessed the drill sergeant from hell,'" he said.
Garrard has been in jail awaiting trial for three years. The child's stepmother, Jessica Mae Hardin, is free on bond awaiting trial on a murder charge for allegedly failing to intervene as Garrard made Savannah run.
Hardin has pleaded not guilty, but no trial date is set.