GADSDEN, Ala. – Relatives and friends of the grandmother and stepmother charged with running a 9-year-old girl to death as a punishment have been defending and attacking the women on Facebook and in at least one case nearly divulging what could be considered evidence.
A judge has warned prosecutors and defense lawyers not to discuss the murder case, and so far they have obeyed. But experts say the hundreds of messages posted online since Savannah Hardin died in February show the legal system has yet to catch up with the social media explosion. They say it highlights the difficulty of making sure witnesses and jurors aren't swayed by outside influences.
Most posts are fairly innocuous, either supporting the women or honoring Savannah's memory. Others get to the heart of the case, including a few discussing how the child died. Many high-profile cases are discussed by thousands or even millions of people online, though in most cases those people aren't directly connected to the case. For instance, the Casey Anthony and Trayvon Martin cases generated immense worldwide attention on Facebook and Twitter.
Because of that, judges routinely admonish jurors not to read about a particular case online. And in Idaho, the Prosecuting Attorneys Association has advises prosecutors to avoid social media relationships that could create ethical problems — including being Facebook friends with judges — and never to talk about their cases online.
The grandmother of Savannah Hardin, Joyce Hardin Garrard, is charged with capital murder for allegedly making the child run and carry yard debris for hours as punishment for a lie about candy. The girl's stepmother, Jessica Mae Hardin, is charged with failing to intervene in the punishment until it was too late.
Garrard could be sentenced to death if convicted; Hardin could get life imprisonment.
Both women remain in Etowah County's jail without access to computers. But as in other high-profile court dramas, Facebook pages dedicated to the case appeared soon after Savannah's death.
The "Justice for Savannah Hardin" page includes calls for harsh sentences for the women. A "Justice for Joyce Hardin Garrard" page includes supportive posts by relatives and friends and photos of Savannah, Joyce Garrard and her husband, Johnny Garrard. Backers of the women can even order T-shirts for about $15.
Many of the posts simply express sympathy for one side or the other, but some go further. In a post last month, a person posting as Johnny Garrard disagreed with a commenter's claim about what killed the child, concluding: "I have the Death Certificate and that is not what it says."
A few other writers suggest they have knowledge about the case that hasn't been made public in court. In one post, a person who claims to have known Jessica Hardin for two decades explains the circumstances of the girl's death and concludes that, in effect, Savannah ran herself to exhaustion by trying to finish chores too quickly.
Court files don't indicate whether Judge William Ogletree is aware of the way the case is playing out in social media. He publicly admonished lawyers during a hearing in March to keep a lid on their own comments, though.
"This case has been attempted to be tried somewhat in the court of public opinion," Ogletree said at the time.
Ogletree's warning didn't slow down the social media chatter, and law professors said it's unlikely a judge could do that anyway because Facebook posts are a bit like people talking on the courthouse steps. They said the case highlights the problem the legal system faces with social sites like Facebook, where jurors, witnesses, lawyers and even judges could be "friends" or see the latest, unfiltered gossip on cases.
"It's a phenomenon in society that's just starting to enter the legal field," said Don Cochran, a former prosecutor and professor at Samford University's Cumberland law school in suburban Birmingham. "I think it's a huge issue in practice, and it ought to be something we're talking about in law schools."
Steven Hobbs, a law professor at the University of Alabama, said attorneys don't generally have a duty to police comments by relatives and friends of people involved in criminal cases.
"However, a lawyer might find it useful to so advise a potential witness as the witness is being prepared for the trial," he wrote in an email. "Expressions on social media could hurt the case just like anything we say or post on Facebook, etc., could be used against us in the court of law or the court of public opinion."
Prosecutors and Joyce Garrard's attorney declined comment on the Facebook posts. A lawyer for Jessica Hardin did not return a message seeking comment.