GADSDEN, AL -- Prosecutors and defense lawyers told a judge Friday they are ready after three years to begin the capital murder trial of an Alabama grandmother charged in the running death of her 9-year-old granddaughter.
Etowah County Circuit Judge William Ogletree said attorneys can begin qualifying hundreds of potential jurors Feb. 17 for the trial of Joyce Garrard, 49, of Boaz.
Final jury selection will start about Feb. 23, he said, and opening statements and testimony about the death of Savannah Hardin will follow.
"We'll just play it by ear to see how it goes," Ogletree told attorneys during a brief hearing.
The judge still must decide on a defense request to set aside a previous order requiring jurors to stay in hotels and avoid media exposure about the case. Ogletree met behind closed doors with lawyers and Garrard after the defense filed the motion, but he didn't issue an immediate ruling.
Prosecutors contend Garrard killed Hardin in early 2012 by making her run for hours outside her home in rural northeast Alabama as punishment for a lie about candy. The child collapsed and later died in a hospital, authorities say.
Garrard has pleaded not guilty, and her lawyers argue the child had previous health problems that led to her death.
Garrard faces a possible death sentence if convicted, but she has the support of relatives and friends who sit on the defense side of the courtroom during hearings.
The girl's father, Robert Hardin, is Garrard's son and filed a malpractice lawsuit last year accusing a local hospital of treatment errors that led to her death.
The girl's stepmother, Jessica Mae Hardin, is charged with murder and is accused of failing to intervene as the girl ran around the yard. Hardin is free on bond, but Garrard has been jailed since her arrest almost three years ago.
Court documents don't indicate whether the stepmother will be a witness in Garrard's trial, but sheriff's officials turned over multiple records of jailhouse phone calls involving Garrard that could be evidence.
Grandma accused of running her 9-year-old granddaughter to death as a punishment in 2012