Published May 03, 2016
A prosecutor calls Joyce Hardin Garrard the "drill sergeant from hell," a woman so mean she made her 9-year-old granddaughter run until the girl collapsed and died, all as punishment for lying about candy.
In court, the 59-year-old year old woman, plump and with a ponytail, looks like a typical grandmother aside from a jail uniform and shackles. And her attorneys argue Garrard's beloved granddaughter died because of other medical problems, not anything Garrard did.
Jurors will begin sorting out the differing images and medical conclusions this week as Garrard goes on trial in the death three years ago of Savannah Hardin, a blond-haired girl known for her big smile and love of reading.
If convicted of capital murder, Garrard could join only a handful of other women on Alabama's death row.
Garrard's trial follows repeated delays and years of legal maneuvering by prosecutors and the defense, much of it conducted without public comment because of a gag order imposed on attorneys, witnesses and others by Etowah County Circuit Judge Billy Ogletree.
Preliminary jury questioning concluded last week, and final jury selection is expected this week. Opening statements will follow.
The child's stepmother, Jessica Mae Hardin, is charged with murder and awaiting a separate trial for allegedly sitting by as Garrard made the child run for hours. No one is saying whether Hardin will testify, but prosecutors have subpoenaed her as a potential witness.
The state also issued a subpoena for Robert Hardin, Savannah's father and the son of Joyce Garrard, and Garrard's husband Johnny Garrard.
Robert Hardin filed a malpractice suit last year blaming his daughter's death on mistakes at Gadsden Regional Medical Center, where the girl was rushed immediately after collapsing outside the family home on a big, wooded lot in rural Etowah County.
Claims made in Hardin's lawsuit -- that medical workers failed to properly treat the girl for low sodium levels after her collapse -- are similar to defense arguments from pretrial hearings. But jurors may never hear any of it: The judge is considering a state request that would limit medical testimony and could hamper the defense's case.
For sure, much of the case will center on what happened on Feb. 17, 2012, the day the child fell ill.
Authorities say medics responding to a 911 call found Savannah having seizures at the family's mobile home. Her father, who was overseas working as a State Department contractor at the time, rushed home and made the decision to remove the girl from life support three days later after she had been transferred to Children's of Alabama in Birmingham.
Investigators said an autopsy revealed the girl was severely dehydrated and had extremely low sodium levels. They compared her condition to that of an athlete who ran a marathon without drinking any water, although the defense has challenged the autopsy findings.
Prosecutors contend Garrard made the child run and carry wood for about three hours as punishment for a lie about eating chocolate. A school bus videotape captured the woman saying she planned to run the child "`til she can't run no more," prosecutor Marcus Reid told a judge during a hearing in 2012.
"That's exactly what she did," said Reid calling Garrard a "drill sergeant from hell."
Defense attorney Dani Bone countered that Garrard's words were empty rhetoric from a woman who had no intention of doing anything to harm the child. Savannah's health problems and treatment decisions following her collapse led to her death, the defense maintains.
Court documents, including come filed following her parents' divorce in 2010, show Savannah had an unspecified medical condition that required continuous medication and treatment, including monthly visits with her regular doctor and trips every few months to see a urologist.
Authorities said the grandmother became angry when Savannah allegedly ate chocolate, which contains caffeine, because the girl's condition meant she couldn't have the substance.
Court documents show at least one potentially important witness has died during the three years it took to get the case to trial.
Days after Savannah's death, neighbor Roger Simpson told The Associated Press he saw a little girl running outside Garrard's house but didn't see anyone chasing or coercing her.
"I saw her running down there, that's what I told the detectives," Simpson said. "But I don't see how that would kill her."
While Simpson's account could have helped Garrard, her attorneys filed a document last week saying the man died Dec. 7.