For some witnesses, regret lingers years after girl's running death

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GADSDEN, Alabama — For some, Savannah Hardin's final hours remain an open wound three years after she was run to death in the yard of her rural home as punishment for a lie.

The 9-year-old's grandmother, Joyce Hardin Garrard, is going to prison after being convicted of capital murder in the case and the defense says she is remorseful. Still, others are grappling with lingering guilt over not doing something that perhaps could have kept the child alive.

Chad and Jolie Jacobs, who testified during Garrard's trial that they saw the girl running while Garrard barked orders yet but didn't walk across the street to help the child, moved from their home partly so they wouldn't have to keep seeing what prosecutors described as the scene of a murder.

Jolie Jacobs told jurors about the events of Feb. 17, 2012. She said she saw Garrard screaming at the girl, heard Savannah begging to stop, saw the child on the ground vomiting, heard slapping sounds — all without deciding to intervene until emergency vehicles pulled up after Savannah had collapsed.

"I wish I had done something a lot sooner," Jolie Jacobs, blinking away tears, told jurors.

Evidence showed Garrard made the child run as punishment for lying about candy that Savannah took from a younger girl on the school bus, and even the bus driver expressed regret.

"I feel partly responsible," Raenna Holmes cried on the stand. "I should have paid for those candy bars."

Prosecutors say the witnesses' guilt is misplaced. They say only two people are to blame for what happened to the child: Garrard and Savannah's stepmother Jessica Mae Hardin, who is charged with murder for allegedly sitting by and doing nothing to help the child.

Marcus Reid, an assistant district attorney in Etowah County, said neighbors have been wrongly criticized for failing to help the girl when they should be praised as heroes. It was a call from the Jacobs that alerted police about what had occurred, he said.

"If not for them, we would never have known what happened to Savannah," said Reid.

During closing arguments, Reid told jurors that the Jacobs and Holmes were still struggling with the child's fate more than Garrard.

"She didn't struggle over what she did in that yard," Reid said.

Jurors recommended a sentence of life without parole for Garrard rather than the death penalty, but the final decision will be up to a judge during a hearing on May 11.

With Garrard convicted, authorities will now turn their attention toward Hardin, who is free on bond.

No trial date is set for the woman, who pleaded not guilty, but Hardin's attorneys were in court during much of Garrard's trial.

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