Grandmother’s punishment for girl's running death tests death penalty in Alabama

The jury in Joyce Hardin Garrard’s trial recommended life in prison for killing her granddaughter. But the Alabama county judge in the case could send Ms. Garrard to death row.

Eric T. Wright/Gadsden Times/AP
Found guilty of Capital Murder in the death of her 9-year-old granddaughter, Joyce Hardin Garrard is led back to the Etowah County Detention Center in Gadsden, Ala. on Friday, March 20, 2015.

An Etowah County, Ala., jury on Friday found that Joyce Hardin Garrard murdered her granddaughter, Savannah Hardin, by literally running the 9-year-old to death in the backyard in 2012.

But while the same jury declined to send Ms. Garrard to death row, county judge Billy Ogletree will have a unique option to reverse that decision and instead sentence the grandmother who punished too hard to herself receive capital punishment.

Alabama is one of three states – the others are Delaware and Florida – that allow so-called judicial override of jury sentences in order to impose the death penalty. The option is rarely used in Florida and Delaware has abolished the death penalty, making Alabama, where judges are elected, the only state in the union to regularly utilize the option.

Savannah collapsed and later died in her grandmother’s Etowah County yard after being forced to run for hours as a punishment for lying about taking some candy and eating it. On its face, it was a difficult murder case to prove, since prosecutors had to convince the jury that Ms. Garrard was so angry at Savannah that she intended to kill the girl with her barked demands for the girl to keep moving even as the sun began to set.

But the jury agreed with the prosecution’s logic, that by the time the punishment was into its third hour, and given wounds on Savannah’s arms from having to carry sticks and pieces of firewood, Garrard was indeed in a murderous frame of mind as she attempted to break her granddaughter of perceived obstinacy.

Five out of 12 jurors voted for the death penalty, while seven voted for life in prison without parole. Given the peculiar nature of the case, prosecutors had not recommended either sentence for jurors to mull.

“You’ve got a female that doesn’t have a criminal record … [y]ou’ve got mitigating factors,” Etowah County prosecutor Jimmie Harp told a local ABC News affiliate. The jury is “the conscience of this community, a very good cross-section of people from this community, and we’re going to respect the jury’s verdict … of life without parole and we’re not going to resist.”

But Judge Ogletree is likely to face pressure to change the sentence. According to unscientific polls, many Alabamians support execution for Garrard. And since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, Alabama jury verdicts have been overridden 111 times, with 101 of those cases ending in the judge upgrading the verdict to death.

The Alabama Criminal Defense Lawyers Association is lobbying the Alabama legislature to kill the override option, pointing to statistics that 80 percent of judicial overrides occur in the year leading up to a judge’s reelection.

Garrard’s lawyer, Sam Bone, wrote on Friday that he will appeal the case on a simple premise: that what prosecutors and neighbors saw as cruel punishment, Garrard saw as a character-building exercise that went wrong. Mr. Bone wrote that, “This is the first verdict in history where someone was convicted of capital murder for running,” and that, “significant legal issues regarding evidence and testimony remain unresolved.”

Other factors make the case unusual. Neighbors who witnessed Savannah’s ordeal say they feel guilt over their decision to not interfere, although prosecutors in Etowah County praise those same neighbors for letting police know how Savannah collapsed, after Ms. Garrard lied about the circumstances of the girl’s struggle. And to further complicate the sentencing scenario, the state will soon try Savannah’s stepmother, Jessia Mae Hardin, as a conspirator, alleging that she too contributed to murder by simply observing her step-daughter’s deadly punishment instead of stopping it.

And then there is the fact that Garrard is a woman. There are only three women currently on Alabama’s death row, all of whom who were convicted of killing their children, in one case in order to cash in a $100,000 life insurance policy.

Two more women may soon find themselves on death row, however. On May 1, a judge will decide whether Lisa Graham deserves to die for hiring a hit man to kill her daughter. And on May 11, Judge Ogletree will take up Garrard’s sentencing, and decide whether to let a jury choose the consequences for Savannah’s death, or decide for himself what punishment fits the crime.

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