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Alabama stepmom charged with girl's murder gives birth

From Rick Martin, CNN
updated 1:46 AM EST, Sat February 25, 2012
Jessica Mae Hardin, 27, and Joyce Hardin Garrard, 46, are charged in the death of Hardin's 9-year-old stepdaughter.
Jessica Mae Hardin, 27, and Joyce Hardin Garrard, 46, are charged in the death of Hardin's 9-year-old stepdaughter.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: A sheriff's spokeswoman says "that young body simply could not take it"
  • The stepmother of the deceased girl gave birth Wednesday, a district attorney says
  • She and the girl's grandmother are both charged with felony murder
  • Authorities say they made the girl run around the yard for eating a chocolate bar

(CNN) -- A northeast Alabama woman gave birth days after being charged with murder in the death of her 9-year-old stepdaughter, who authorities say was run to death as punishment for eating chocolate, officials said Thursday.

Jessica Mae Hardin, 27, and Joyce Hardin Garrard, 46, are charged with killing Savannah Hardin by forcing her to run around her family's house for three hours as punishment for lying about taking a chocolate candy bar. The girl was Garrard's granddaughter.

Savannah, who lived about 20 miles northwest of Gadsden, died Monday.

At the time of Hardin's arrest, she was pregnant, according to Natalie Barton, spokeswoman for the Etowah County Sheriff's Office.

Hardin delivered a baby on Wednesday afternoon and is under armed guard at a local hospital, said Jimmie Harp, Etowah County District Attorney.

Attorneys for Hardin said she is devastated by her stepdaughter's death, and urged the public to disregard rumors and assumptions.

"Unfortunately, whenever a child passes, our society wants to place blame, our media wants to sensationalize and our elected officials want to make grandiose statements that are not based on facts," attorneys Morgan Cunningham and Vincent Pentecost said in a statement.

Harp said his office is in contact with the Department of Human Resources, and together they are working on a "safety plan" for the newborn and a 3-year-old who lived in the house.

The two surviving children are Hardin's with her husband Robert. He was in Pakistan working as a contractor with the U.S. State Department when he heard the news about his eldest daughter, Savannah, Harp said.

By the time Robert Hardin could make it back to see Savannah, his daughter was on life support, said Harp -- characterizing the girl's death hours later as "very tragic" and "unnecessary."

Savannah's biological mother lives in Florida and did not have custody, Harp said.

By state law, Jessica Mae Hardin and Joyce Hardin Garrard must have an in initial court appearance within 72 hours of their arrest, Harp said. They are charged with "felony murder (with) aggravated child abuse," according to sheriff's office spokeswoman Natalie Barton.

"We're still interviewing neighbors and other people who may have witnessed the incident of the child running. We'll make a determination whether to upgrade these charges to capital murder," Harp said.

Garrard and Hardin are each being held on $500,000 cash bond.

Last Friday, Savannah was "punished for eating a chocolate candy car that her grandmother says she should not have eaten," Barton said.

Authorities said the girl had a bladder condition that could have been worsened by eating the candy, according to CNN affiliate WBRC.

"It is alleged that the grandmother was out in the yard with Savannah, and she was encouraging her with the words, 'Move it! Move it! Move it!' -- much like a drill sergeant," the sheriff's spokeswoman told CNN on Thursday.

Barton told HLN's Nancy Grace, "That young body simply could not take it. That is child abuse. (Garrard) overstepped (the) line."

At about 6:45 p.m. that day, Hardin called 911 and said Savannah had suffered a seizure and was unresponsive, Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin said in a news release.

Savannah died Monday at Children's Hospital in Birmingham. A state pathologist in Huntsville ruled her death a homicide. "Preliminary reports show Savannah was extremely dehydrated and had a very low sodium level," the release says.

Several people had seen the third-grade student at Carlisle Elementary School outside in her yard running, but at first they didn't suspect anything, said Barton.

"In the initial reaction, who thinks that it's a punishment when you see a 9-year-old out in the front yard running?" the spokeswoman said. "It was a beautiful day here that day, she was probably just simply outside playing.

"(Neighbors) didn't start putting two-and-two together until they saw the medics arrive at the house."

Marcus Reid, assistant district attorney in Etowah County, called Savannah's death "one of the most serious cases we've ever had."

"We've had too many children die because parents and stepparents and people responsible for them don't do what they should do," he said.

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