On Friday, February 17, 2012, 27-year-old Jessica Mae Hardin scolded her 9-year-old step-daughter for lying to her grandmother about eating a candy bar. As punishment, Savannah Hardin was told to run, and keep running while carrying a load of firewood. At four that afternoon, a neighbor saw the third grader running laps around the family's doublewide on a dirt road in rural northeast Alabama. At six-forty-five that evening the stepmother called 911 after Savannah started having seizures. Finding the girl unresponsive, emergency medical personnel rushed her to the Gadsden Regional Medical Center in Birmingham, Alabama.
On Monday, February 20, the 9-year-old died. According to the state forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy, she had been severely dehydrated with a dangerously low sodium level. Before she collapsed, Savannah had been running for three hours.
Deputies with the Etowah County Sheriff's Office took the stepmother and the victim's 46-year-old grandmother, Joyce Garrard, into custody. The grandmother was charged with capital murder. If convicted, she faced either life without parole or the death penalty. The pair were booked into the Etowah County jail, each under a $500,000 cash bond. The stepmother, Jessica Hardin, faced the charge of felony-murder,.
According to the step-mother's estranged husband (apparently not the girl's father), the suspect suffered from bi-polar disorder and was a heavy drinker. Both women denied any wrongdoing in the child's death.
In January 2013, after a judge reduced Jessica Hardin's bond to $150,000, the stepmother posted bail and walked out of the Etowah County lockup. The authorities continued to hold the grandmother without bond.
On August 26, 2014, Etowah County Circuit Judge William Ogletree moved the grandmother's murder trial from September 2014 to February 2015. The judge cited "discovery and procedural issues" as reasons for the delay.
The Joyce Garrard murder trial got under way in the Etowah County Courthouse on March 9, 2015. Following the selection of jury made up of ten men and six women, four serving as alternates, Chief Deputy District Attorney Marcus Reid made his opening statement. According to the prosecutor, the defendant acted like a "drill sergeant who ran her granddaughter to death.
Defense attorney Dani Bone told the jurors that her client had meant no harm to her granddaughter. The girl wanted to run and to get faster after she had finished second in a race at school. As for the cause of her death, the girl had recovered at the hospital before dying from prior health complications.
Prosecutor Reid put Dr. Emily Ward on the stand, the forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy on Savannah Hardin. The expert witness testified that the victim had died from her seizures linked to abnormally low sodium levels caused by "prolonged physical exertion and heat exhaustion." According to Dr. Ward, the victim's left arm had three bruises caused by carrying the firewood as she ran.
Heather Elgin Gibson, a nurse who was on duty at the Gadsden Regional Medical Center when the girl was brought in, said the victim was unconscious and unresponsive. The witness said she mistakingly "clicked a wrong button" on an electronic chart that made it appear the patient was alert at one point. She was not.
On March 16, 2015, defense attorney Bone, after the prosecution rested, asked Judge Ogletree to direct a verdict of acquittal on the grounds that the state had not proven its case. Attorney Bone said that if the defendant had wanted to punish the child for a lie, there was no reason for her to force the girl to run until she died. "Discipline means teaching a lesson," he said. "How is the defendant going to teach a lesson if she kills her?"
Prosecutor Reid, in arguing that the state had presented enough evidence to require a defense, pointed out that the defendant had kept yelling at the child to run even after she was on the ground vomiting and begging to stop. "You judge a person's state of mind by what they do," he said.
The judge ruled in favor of the prosecution which meant that the defense would have to put on its case.
Donna Johnson, Savannah Hardin's principal at Carlisle Elementary School, testified that the defendant had shown concern for her granddaughter. (This countered the testimony given by a physician who had treated the victim. The doctor had described the defendant as uncaring.)
Dr. Deborah Smith, a physician with Quality of Life Health Services took the stand for the defense. Dr. Smith said she had treated Savannah Hardin for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Under cross-examination, the witness admitted telling investigators that she was concerned that the patient did not have a normal relationship with the defendant and her stepmother, Jessica Hardin.
On March 18, 2015, Joyce Garrard took the stand on her own behalf. She testified two hours during which time she became tearful as well as defiant. According to the defendant, she had punished her granddaughter that day by making her pick up sticks in the yard for 30 to 45 minutes. As the witness relayed her version of the case, she drank freely from a water bottle at her side on the witness stand.
When asked about the running, Garrard described it as "more of a jog, not a full run." The witness said, "You can't make Savannah run. She runs when she wants."
"Did you ever intend to hurt Savannah?" asked the defense attorney. "Absolutely not," came the reply. "I would rather die than harm Savannah."
The defendant denied that Savannah was ever down on all fours vomiting. When pressed about this on cross-examination, Garrard admitted that the girl had vomited once then continued with her activities.
Late in the day on Saturday March 21, 2015, the Etowah County jury found the defendant guilty of capital murder. As the jury foreman read the verdict, Garrard lowered her head and cried. Others in the courtroom expressed their approval of the jury's decision.
The penalty phase of the trial began on Monday March 23, 2015. Three days later, the jury recommended life in prison for the convicted grandmother. Five of the Etowah County jurors had voted for her death.
On May 11, 2015, Judge Ogletree sentenced Garrard to life in prison without the possibility of parole.