A jury in Etowah County, Alabama, has recommended a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for Joyce Garrard for the 2012 murder of her granddaughter, Savannah Hardin, the 9-year-old who was forced to run until she collapsed as punishment for eating candy bars on the school bus and lying about it. Hardin died in the hospital three days later.
Last week the same jury found Garrard guilty of capital murder. On Monday, the sentencing phase of the trial began, where the jury—made up of 8 men and 4 women—considered aggravating and mitigating circumstances to decide whether Garrard should be executed or spend life in prison. To recommend a death sentence, the jury was told they must find that Garrard’s crime had been especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel when compared to other capital murders. While most states require a unanimous decision, in Alabama—the state with the highest death sentencing rate per capita in the country—just 10 of 12 jurors must vote in favor of imposing the death penalty.
In Alabama, a judge has final say over sentencing. That sentencing hearing was set for May 11.
Garrard had asked through her attorneys for the jury to impose a sentence of life without parole. “The worst punishment is to send her to the state penitentiary as the grandmother who ran her granddaughter to death,” Defense attorney Richard Rhea said during final arguments today.
During the first phase of the trial, the 50-year-old (today was in fact, her birthday) grandmother took the stand in her own defense. Contradicting a number of earlier witnesses who testified they saw Savannah running with cinder block-sized pieces of firewood and Garrard meting out the corporal punishment, Garrard contended under oath that she would “rather die” than hurt her granddaughter and had not been punishing Savannah when she collapsed.
Neighbors and witnesses testified that Garrard had shouted at Savannah to “keep running” as the second-grader ran 50-foot sprints for close to three hours. Even when Savannah fell to her knees, broke down in tears and vomited on the lawn, Garrard was staunch. “I didn’t tell you you could stop,” witnesses testified hearing Garrard say.
The defense made its case for life imprisonment on Wednesday after an unsuccessful attempt to get the case thrown out entirely. Defense attorney Dani Bone asked circuit court Judge William “Billy” Ogletree to dismiss Garrard’s verdict on account of unspecified “widespread juror misconduct” by at least four jurors. The jury was not sequestered in a hotel room, but had been instructed by Judge Ogletree to stay off social media including Facebook and away from the news—orders that Bone said had been ignored. After a two-hour investigation the defense’s request was seemingly ignored and the defense called its witnesses to testify on Garrard’s behalf.
According to local reporters in the courtroom, Joyce Garrard wiped tears away as her husband, daughter and sisters testified that despite a tough upbringing in a poor home with an alcoholic father and a history of physical and sexual abuse, Garrard had been a loving mother and grandmother, though with a gruff demeanor that others might mistake for a lack of caring. Garrard’s daughter, Nicole Selvage, begged the jury to spare her mother’s life. “She’s my best friend. She has a heart of gold,” Selvage said on the stand.
Her husband of 20 years, 54-year-old Johnny Garrard, told jurors “You won’t see a better grandmother,” and said that his wife had nursed him back to health after an accident with a mixer truck left him unable to walk. Crying on the stand, Johnny Garrard said, “I hope y’all spare her life.”
Neuropsychologist Dr. Carol Walker also testified to Garrard’s ninth-grade education and low IQ of 71 (the current cut-off for mental retardation is 70) and noted the history of abuse in Garrard’s childhood home, citing specifically a grandmother who made the children fight for the fun of it. Dr. Walker further told the court Garrard’s age and family support made her unlikely to engage in violence while in prison.
On Monday, the prosecution presented three witnesses. County Sheriff Todd Entrekin testified that Savannah’s case was one of the worst he’d seen telling jurors, “This is definitely a death penalty case in my opinion.” Samuel Hudgins, a witness who saw Savannah running in the yard, noted that a neighbor told him Garrard had once threatened to “blow his brains out.” The most persuasive witness for the prosecution was Heather Walker, Savannah’s mother, who recounted her child’s final moments and the years-long alienation from her daughter by her ex-husband.
Walker spoke at length with The Daily Beast in an exclusive interview published a day before the guilty verdict was handed down.
“I feel like she’s guilty,” Heather told The Daily Beast. “It might not have been her intention, but ultimately it all falls on Joyce…As an adult and a parent and a grandparent, you should know when enough is enough. Even if Savannah really did do what they are saying she did, you don’t punish a child like that.”
Walker also said then that she didn’t want Garrard to be executed for Savannah’s death. “I think she should sit in jail for the rest of her life…and let her conscience be her penalty,” Walker said. But it seems closing arguments and seeing Garrard face-to-face again had an effect on Walker’s opinion. During the sentencing phase, the Florida woman told the jury that Garrard showed no remorse for her daughter’s death. Walker said in a tearful testimony, “Her life shouldn’t be spared because she didn’t think twice about what she was doing.”
A death sentence would have made Garrard the fourth female incarcerated on Alabama’s death row, on which 194 total death row inmates currently wait. If Judge Ogletree takes the jury's recommendation for a life sentence, Garrard will be remanded to a state prison where she’ll join approximately 1500 others serving life sentences without the possibility of parole in Alabama—a segment that makes up about five percent of the state’s total prison population.
Savannah’s stepmother, Jessica Hardin, was present at the time of the little girl’s collapse and was later arrested with Garrard following Savannah’s death. Hardin will still face a lesser charge of murder at a yet-to-be-decided date for failing to intervene. Her lawyers say she is innocent.