ATTALLA, Ala. – Savannah Hardin’s life was in turmoil long before police say the 9-year-old was run to death by her grandmother and stepmother for lying about some candy she ate.
Divorce and custody documents filed in family court over a period of several years reflect a history of fractured family relationships, with Hardin’s divorced parents fighting over her welfare; claims of mental instability and abuse between her father and his second wife; medical problems that required frequent doctor visits; and counseling for the girl who still somehow managed to remain among the top students in her third-grade class.
Authorities say Hardin’s life ended in exhaustion earlier this month when she was forced by her paternal grandmother, Joyce Hardin Garrard, to run for three hours, while her stepmother, Jessica Mae Hardin, did nothing to stop it.
The grandmother prodded her along cruelly, and the stepmother didn’t intervene until Hardin collapsed in an unconscious heap, investigators say.
Now, Hardin Garrard is in jail and Hardin’s stepmother is being held in police custody at a hospital after giving birth to another child. Both have been charged with murder.
Jessica Mae Hardin’s attorneys, Morgan Cunningham and Vince Pentecost, said in a statement Friday that she was “incredibly devastated over Savannah’s death” and they would prove her innocence.
“Unfortunately, whenever a child passes away, our society wants to place blame, our media wants to sensationalize and our elected officials want to make grandiose statements that are not based in fact,” they said.
A defense lawyer representing the grandmother said she will be cleared of any crime.
“Even then, Joyce Garrard and her family will continue to grieve over the loss of their beloved Savannah,” Dani Bone said.
Neighbors and classmates created a small memorial for Hardin, depositing stuffed animals and flowers and attaching balloons to a wooden fence surrounding the trailer where she lived with her family off a dirt road.
Included in the informal memorial was a white wooden cross hung with a blue ribbon to which a poem had been attached. A neighbor of Hardin’s family, Gail Denny, held back tears as she placed a candle and a stuffed animal at the site Wednesday.
She said that on Valentine’s Day, her grandson had asked Hardin to be his girlfriend, and she said yes.
“I just can’t believe it,” she said of Hardin’s death.
A few miles away at Carlisle Elementary School, students placed written letters and hand-drawn pictures on Hardin’s desk, which was brought into a main hallway.
“Savannah was an excellent student, earning A’s and B’s in her school work,” said a statement released by school Principal Linda Johnson. “Her favorite subject was math; she enjoyed reading books to earn points in the Accelerated Reader program – and was very proud of always meeting her reading goals. ... Savannah was a happy child at school. She always wore a smile, and often brightened the day of teachers and administrators with her kind comments.”