Judge denies new trial for woman in girl's running death

Created: 10/16/2015 3:52 PM

GADSDEN, Ala. (AP) — An Alabama judge on Friday denied a motion to grant a new trial to a woman serving life without parole in the running death of her 9-year-old granddaughter.

Joyce Hardin Garrard appeared in shackles and an orange and white striped jumpsuit during a hearing before Etowah County Circuit Judge Billy Ogletree. Garrard, 50, wanted Ogletree to throw out her capital murder conviction in the death of 9-year-old Savannah Hardin in 2012.

Prosecutors have said Garrard made the girl run for hours after school until she collapsed as punishment for a lie about candy. A jury convicted Garrard of capital murder in March and recommended a life sentence in a 7-5 vote. Garrard had faced the death penalty.

Garrard denied that she meant to harm the child. Surveillance video from a school bus that was shown to the jury recorded Garrard telling the bus driver, Raenna Holmes, that Savannah took candy from a student who was selling it without paying. Garrard told Holmes: "She's going to run until I tell her to stop."

Garrard's attorneys, Scott Stewart and Paul Roberts, argued that her trial included numerous mistakes. Among other things, the defense said the judge wrongfully prevented Garrard's lawyers from presenting jurors with an alternate theory about what led to the girl's death. The woman's attorneys mentioned the role of dehydration and the girl's medical care while in the hospital as possible contributors.

Prosecutors said each of the 15 items mentioned in Garrard's motion for a new trial had been addressed before the end of the first one and she had no legal basis to have the conviction thrown out.

Chief Deputy District Attorney Marcus Reid said there was no disagreement between prosecutors and defense attorneys about what led up to the girl's death and the defense team had plenty of opportunities to make its case.

The case drew national media attention and Garrard's attorneys also argued that pretrial coverage likely impacted its outcome and the court was wrong to reject a motion for a change of venue.

"It's kind of hard to imagine where you'd move this case to," Reid said.

Garrard's attorneys also alleged juror misconduct but prosecutors said any potential issue in that area was handled before the verdict came down.

An alternate juror who was overheard telling someone he was involved with the case was dismissed from the panel. Prosecutors said there was no evidence that any other jurors identified themselves as a member of the panel or discussed the case with anyone else.

Scott also said attorneys were only able to meet with Garrard at the Etowah County jail, and contended that refusing to grant bond hurt her ability to help the defense team. Defendants who face the death penalty — as Garrard did in this case — are not eligible for bond, Reid said.

The girl's stepmother, Jessica Mae Hardin, is charged with felony murder and will be tried separately. Court records show her trial is expected to begin Feb. 22.

(Copyright 2015 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)