Jury: Life sentence for grandmother in 9-year-old girl's running death

GADSDEN, Ala. (AP) — A jury recommended life without parole Thursday for an Alabama woman convicted of capital murder in her granddaughter's running death.

Jurors rejected prosecutors' pleas for a death sentence for Joyce Hardin Garrard.

The decision came Thursday on Garrard's 50th birthday.

The verdict is only a suggestion under Alabama law. Circuit Judge Billy Ogletree will make the final sentencing decision at a hearing later.

The same jury convicted Garrard of capital murder last week in the February 2012 death of 9-year-old Savannah Hardin.

Prosecutors told jurors the woman deserved to die for making the girl run for hours as punishment for a lie about eating candy. The child collapsed and died later in a hospital.

The defense asked for mercy, arguing that Savannah loved Garrard and wouldn't want her put to death.

Prosecutors say Savannah was forced to run for more than three hours carrying sticks and firewood as a punishment for lying about eating candy on the school bus.

Assistant district attorney Marcus Reid said during opening statements in a standing-room-only courtroom that jurors would hear from neighbors who say they heard and saw what happened to Savannah the day she died.

Neighbors said Garrard yelled at the girl as she ran, forcing her to continue "like some kind of drill sergeant." At one point, one neighbor saw the girl vomiting on her hands and knees, begging to stop, Reid said.

When paramedics arrived, they found Savannah on the ground, "freezing cold to the touch," her clothes and shoes soaking wet, Reid said. Garrard never told the medics that the girl had been running; she said only that the girl collapsed in the yard.

Savannah wasn't supposed to eat candy because she was on medication for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and had a bladder problem, but she had eaten candy on the school bus the day before she died.

Video surveillance showed Garrard talking to the school bus driver. Reid said Garrard told the driver that Savannah was "going to run until I tell her to stop." When the bus driver asked if the girl was OK, Reid said, Garrard replied: "She might be if I can get four more bottles of water in her."

Prosecutors have said the girl died of dangerously low sodium levels, which can be brought on by not having enough water in her system.

The girl's stepmother, Jessica Mae Hardin, is awaiting trial on a murder charge in the girl's death. Authorities said she sat by without intervening while the older woman forced the girl to run until she dropped.