Life imprisonment for grandmother who ran her granddaughter to death

Savannah, right. The nine-year-old girl begged her grandmother to let her stop running.
Savannah, right. The nine-year-old girl begged her grandmother to let her stop running. 

This is what Alabama grandmother Joyce Hardin Garrard told her granddaughter's bus driver, Raeanna Holmes, when Holmes stopped at the house on her end-of-day route on February 17, 2012: Savannah Hardin was in trouble for lying about some candy she took from a classmate. As punishment, her grandmother told the nine-year-old to run.

Across the street that day, according to court testimony, neighbours Chad and Jolie Jacobs watched with increasing concern as Savannah ran for more than three hours, with her 50-year-old grandmother shouting: "I didn't tell you to stop!" As the punishment continued, and Savannah was later ordered to run while carrying firewood sticks, the neighbours assumed that the elementary school student was getting an occasional respite. But that wasn't true, and by the time the neighbours attempted to intervene, at about 6:30 that evening, Savannah was on the ground, vomiting, as her grandmother shouted: "Get up! I better not have to tell you again!"

Savannah had a seizure and was hospitalised. She died days later from extreme physical exertion, an autopsy ruled. Her grandmother was convicted of capital murder earlier this year.

Savannah had a seizure after her grandmother forced her to run for hours as punishment.
Savannah had a seizure after her grandmother forced her to run for hours as punishment. 

On Monday, Judge William Ogletree sentenced Garrard to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Ogletree's decision is in line with an earlier recommendation from a jury to spare Garrard the death penalty. The jury was split five to seven in favour of life imprisonment, a sentence that prosecutors supported, reported. But in Alabama, a judge can override the sentencing decision of a jury in a capital case such as Garrard's.

Alabama judges have opted for the death penalty in cases in which a jury has recommended life imprisonment 101 times since 1976, according to a report from the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama. Overrides have gone the other way — from death to life — just 10 times, by contrast.

The witness accounts from Holmes and Chad and Jolie Jacobs contained excruciating details from the moments that prosecutors argued led to Savannah's death.

They also contained regret: "I wish I had done something a lot sooner," Jolie Jacobs said. Holmes said she felt "partly responsible" for the girl's death. Holmes initially caught Savannah in the lie that led her grandmother to punish her so severely. "I should have paid for those candy bars," the bus driver said.

In the end, prosecutors determined that two women were responsible for Savannah's death: Garrard and Hardin's stepmother, Jessica Hardin, who was also charged with murder. Prosecutors have accused Hardin of failing to intervene in Garrard's treatment of her stepdaughter. Hardin is still awaiting trial and plans to plead not guilty.


According to a sketch of the day in question, which was detailed by, Holmes told Garrard on a Friday morning that she had caught Savannah in a lie. The girl had taken some fundraiser candy from another student, eaten it and left the wrappers on her seat on the bus. At first, Savannah denied taking the candy, but she later confessed.

Soon after, Garrard called the mother of the girl from whom Hardin had taken the candy, made an offer to pay for the candy bars Savannah had taken and said her granddaughter was in big trouble. According to testimony from the mother, Juanita Sweatt, Garrard also indicated that she suspected that Savannah was bullying Sweatt's daughter.

After getting off the phone, Sweatt asked her daughter about Savannah. She denied that Savannah had ever hit or bullied her on the bus. Garrard's tone on that first phone call was enough to prompt Sweatt to call her back after speaking to her daughter. "I didn't want Savannah to get in trouble for something that didn't happen," Sweatt said, according to an account of her testimony from the Gadsen Times.

Savannah's grandmother Joyce Hardin Garrard sentenced to life in prison.
Savannah's grandmother Joyce Hardin Garrard sentenced to life in prison. Photo: AP

Garrard has a different explanation for what transpired that afternoon: Savannah was running because the nine-year-old "asked me to coach her," the grandmother testified. "Instead of coming in second in her running class at school, she wanted to come in first."

She said Savannah's punishment was to pick up sticks in the yard, an activity that Garrard said she did, too, because "I felt just as responsible for her lying as she was." According to the version of events Garrard gave at the trial, Savannah was injured when she fell while Garrard stepped inside.

Prosecutors presented testimony indicating that Garrard's story changed more than once in the hours after Savannah was hospitalised.

Savannah's grandmother Joyce Hardin Garrard, left, and her stepmother Jessica Hardin.
Savannah's grandmother Joyce Hardin Garrard, left, and her stepmother Jessica Hardin. Photo: AP

Witness accounts don't paint a complete picture of what happened that afternoon, but they do contradict elements of Garrard's story.

Holmes stopped by the house on her route home, after Hardin didn't take the bus at the end of the day. Her exchange with Garrard was captured on a surveillance video on the bus. Holmes saw Hardin picking up sticks in the yard. Her grandmother said that the girl was "gonna learn" not to lie and that she would "run until I tell her to stop."

Across the street, Chad and Jolie Jacobs first noticed Savannah at about 4pm, running in a short pattern around the yard of Garrard's house, they testified. At 5pm, they said, Savannah was carrying sticks for firewood as her grandmother continued to yell in a "hateful, hostile" tone.

By 6:30pm, after the couple had come back home from a short trip, Savannah was on the ground in the yard, vomiting.

Here's how summarised the couple's testimony of the scene:

    "Get up! I better not have to tell you again!" Jolie said she heard Garrard yell.

    By this time, the child was begging to stop. Jolie said she thought she heard "skin on skin" across the street, as though Joyce was striking the child.

    Savannah was vomiting. Still Joyce barked at her to carry the wood, even as she was crying.

    Savannah was on her hands and knees. Joyce tried pouring water into her mouth, telling her she'd better drink up or she couldn't go to the bathroom. The water was running out of her mouth.

It was at that point that the couple decided to intervene. But medics were already arriving at the house.

Savannah's stepmother had placed a 911 call to get help for the girl. According to testimony from Lori Beggs, the dispatcher who took that call, Jessica Hardin and Garrard were unusually calm, considering that they told the dispatcher that Savannah was unconscious after a seizure.

Hardin did not mention that her stepdaughter had been running and told the dispatcher that she had fallen off a step. She was on the ground in the front yard when paramedics arrived.

Savannah was naked from the waist down when Mountainboro volunteer firefighter Justin Hairrell arrived at the scene, he testified. Her bottom half was covered in a wet blanket, and she was wearing a soaked T-shirt.

Garrard's attorneys asked Ogletree to keep Garrard in prison for life, telling the court: "The worst punishment you could give is to send her to the penitentiary as the grandmother who ran her grandchild to death."

Washington Post