Girl's running death: Alabama prosecutors deny problems with autopsy doctor, seek trial

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BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — Prosecutors are denying defense claims that wrongdoing by an autopsy doctor and trial delays should derail the murder case against an Alabama woman charged with forcing her granddaughter to run for hours and causing her death.

Documents filed with the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals late Wednesday show prosecutors are fighting a defense request to dismiss charges against Joyce Hardin Garrard, 49.

Garrard's lawyers are trying to short-circuit her upcoming trial in Gadsden by claiming wrongdoing in other matters by the doctor who performed the autopsy on 9-year-old Savannah Hardin in 2012.

The defense also contended in documents filed last month with the appeals court that repeated delays in the case have violated Garrard's constitutional right to a speedy trial.

Authorities contend the woman forced the girl to run for hours as punishment for a lie, resulting in her death. Garrard has pleaded not guilty, and her lawyers say the girl had prior health problems that caused her death.

The child's autopsy will be key evidence, and the defense claims the doctor who performed it had a history of wrongdoing. But the state argued Garrard's lawyers knowingly made false allegations of wrongdoing by Dr. Emily Ward, the forensic specialist who performed the autopsy on Hardin.

The defense claimed Ward was fired from the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences for falsifying documents and won't be available to testify at Garrard's trial, but prosecutors said the allegations are "absolutely false" and that Ward retired because of health problems.

Another pathologist could testify about the autopsy even if Ward cannot appear, prosecutors said.

Also, the state argued that defense lawyers are partly to blame for trial delays and said the postponements did not violate Garrard's rights.

The last trial date actually was postponed because of a defense request to sequester the jury, not a decision Circuit Judge William Ogletree made on his own, according to the state's arguments.

The defense motion about the jury — which could result in members staying in a hotel rather than at home during the trial — was filed under seal to prevent potential jurors from being angry with the defense over the inconvenience, according to the document by prosecutors.

Garrard is set to stand trial on a capital murder charge starting Feb. 23 in Etowah County. Jailed since February 2012 while awaiting trial, she would receive the death penalty or life without parole if convicted.

The child's stepmother is free on bond after being charged with murder for allegedly failing to intervene while the girl was forced to run until she collapsed. The girl died in a hospital days later.

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