GADSDEN, Ala. (AP) — The grandmother and stepmother of a 9-year-old Alabama girl who died after witnesses said she was forced to run for three hours as punishment for lying have been charged with murder and are being held in jail.

Witnesses told deputies that Savannah Hardin was told to run and not allowed to stop for three hours on Friday Feb. 17, an Etowah County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman said. The girl’s stepmother, 27-year-old Jessica Mae Hardin, called police at 6:45 p.m., telling authorities that Savannah was having a seizure and was unresponsive.

Authorities are still trying to determine whether Savannah was forced to run by physical coercion or by verbal commands only.

Savannah Hardin died Monday at Children’s Hospital in Birmingham, according to a news release from the sheriff’s office.

Authorities said Jessica Mae Hardin and Savannah’s grandmother — 46-year-old Joyce Hardin Garrard — were both arrested and charged with murder after the death was ruled a homicide by a state pathologist.

The sheriff’s release says the autopsy report showed the girl was extremely dehydrated and had a very low sodium level.

The sheriff’s office received calls from concerned citizens who had witnessed the incident. No other details were released, and spokeswoman Natalie Barton said the investigation is ongoing.

“It’s sad when a family is grieving over the death of a daughter and granddaughter and so soon to find out that the death could have been prevented,” Etowah Sheriff Todd Entrkin wrote in the release. “My thoughts and prayers are with the family.”

Garrard and Hardin are being held in the Etowah County Detention Center, each on a $500,000 cash bond.

Barton said Savannah lived in an Attalla, Ala. home with her father, Robert Hardin, and Jessica Hardin. Garrard lives nearby.

Court records show that Robert Hardin filed for divorce from Jessica in August of 2010. In his complaint, he asserted Jessica was bi-polar and of had alcoholic tendencies. He accused her of previously having run off with the couple’s own child, Gavin.

In her response, Jessica denied all of Robert’s allegations.

Five months after filing for divorce, the two asked a judge to dismiss their case.

Savannah Hardin was a 3rd grader at Carlisle Elementary School. Superintendent Alan Cosby said her desk had been turned into a makeshift memorial where her classmates could leave notes and mementos. He said counselors and social workers were made available for students.

“This is obviously a very tragic, devastating, heartbreaking situation,” Cosby said. “Nothing like this has ever happened before.”

(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)


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