Girl’s mother calls for death sentence in run-to-death case

FILE - This photo providedby the Etowah County Sheriff's Dept. shows Jessica Mae Hardin, stepmother to 9-year-old Savannah Hardin. A jury convicted grandmother Joyce Hardin Garrard late Friday, March 20, 2015, in the February 2012 death of Savannah Hardin, siding with prosecutors who depicted Garrard as a domineering taskmaster so enraged over a lie about candy that she made the girl run until she dropped. Jessica Hardin, is free on bond awaiting trial on a murder charge for allegedly failing to intervene as Garrard made Savannah run. No trial date is set for Hardin, who has pleaded not guilty. (AP Photo/Etowah County Sheriff's Office, File)
FILE - This photo providedby the Etowah County Sheriff's Dept. shows Jessica Mae Hardin, stepmother to 9-year-old Savannah Hardin. A jury convicted grandmother Joyce Hardin Garrard late Friday, March 20, 2015, in the February 2012 death of Savannah Hardin, siding with prosecutors who depicted Garrard as a domineering taskmaster so enraged over a lie about candy that she made the girl run until she dropped. Jessica Hardin, is free on bond awaiting trial on a murder charge for allegedly failing to intervene as Garrard made Savannah run. No trial date is set for Hardin, who has pleaded not guilty. (AP Photo/Etowah County Sheriff's Office, File)

GADSDEN, Ala. (AP) – Just as when she was run to the point of collapse as punishment for a lie, 9-year-old Savannah Hardin’s final moments alive in a hospital bed were drowned out by her grandmother’s shouts, Savannah’s mother testified Monday.

Heather Walker testified, at times sobbing, that her former mother-in-law showed no remorse over the girl’s death and was haranguing the child even as a physician turned off a breathing machine to see if Savannah could breathe on her own.

“During this time Joyce was just screaming at Savannah saying, ‘Savannah, you need to breathe,'” Walker said.

Left with a swollen brain and little neural activity from seizures, the girl couldn’t draw a breath. She died after her father decided against putting her back on life support.

Now, the same jurors who convicted Garrard of capital murder for making the girl run as punishment will decide whether to recommend life or death for the 49-year-old Garrard.

Walker took the stand in support of prosecutors who want the death penalty because the girl’s death was so cruel. Walker said Garrard “shouldn’t be spared” even if she didn’t wake up that morning planning to kill Savannah.

“I think there was a point where she knew what she was doing,” Walker said during cross-examination.

Seated just a few feet away at the defense table, Garrard showed no emotion. Meanwhile, much of Walker’s testimony was hard to understand because she was sobbing uncontrollably.

The trial and other court documents portray Savannah as a sweet kid who loved horses, cheerleading and the competition of running at school, yet also a child whose life was marred by tension almost from the day she was born prematurely.

Her parents split when she was 3. With Savannah staying with her mother in Florida, welfare officials there investigated whether the child was being mistreated or living in dangerous conditions at least found times but took no action, records show.

Walker said she and Savannah’s father later became locked in a “custody battle,” part of which was staged in the same courtroom where Garrard’s trial was held, and before the same circuit judge, William Ogletree. He awarded custody of Savannah to the father, and Walker said she quickly lost contact with the girl.

Walker said she didn’t see Savannah for two years before her death because her ex-husband’s family kept changing phone numbers and never seemed to be home when she’d try to stop by.

Walker said she sent packages to Savannah, but they never seemed to make it through.

“They would always be returned to my house,” she said.

With her son overseas as a State Department contractor, Garrard and her husband Johnny stepped in to help Hardin’s next wife care for Savannah and her younger half brother. That’s why Garrard was there in the first place that day Savannah ran until she had a seizure and collapsed.

Walker said she’s seen no signs of regret from her one-time mother-in-law since.

“I personally feel like I see no remorse and she took away my baby’s life,” Walker said of Garrard.

At the hospital, even as Garrard yelled it was obvious Savannah wouldn’t survive within moments of going off life support, Walker said.

“I held her hand until her body stiffened up,” said Walker, sobbing and barely understandable.

Later at the hospital, Walker said, Garrard grabbed the shoulders of the child’s pregnant stepmother, Jessica Mae Hardin.

Even though Hardin was in labor at the time and would later give birth, Garrard seemed intent on getting the other woman’s attention, Walker said.

“She said, ‘Jessica, there’s a lot on the line. You need to pull it together,'” Walker said.

Walker said already had suspicions about what had happened to her daughter, and she became “more uneasy” after hearing Garrard’s remarks to Hardin.

Garrard and Hardin were both at the house the afternoon the girl ran, evidence showed. Hardin is charged with murder for allegedly sitting by as Garrard ran the girl to death, but not trial date is set.
(Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)


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