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Debate Ala girl's death plays out on Facebook

Associated Press Modified: May 6, 2012 at 2:16 pm •  Published: May 6, 2012

GADSDEN, Ala. (AP) — Relatives and friends of the grandmother and stepmother charged with running a 9-year-old girl to death as a punishment have been defending and attacking the women on Facebook and in at least one case nearly divulging what could be considered evidence.

A judge has warned prosecutors and defense lawyers not to discuss the murder case, and so far they have obeyed. But experts say the hundreds of messages posted online since Savannah Hardin died in February show the legal system has yet to catch up with the social media explosion. They say it highlights the difficulty of making sure witnesses and jurors aren't swayed by outside influences.

Most posts are fairly innocuous, either supporting the women or honoring Savannah's memory. Others get to the heart of the case, including a few discussing how the child died. Many high-profile cases are discussed by thousands or even millions of people online, though in most cases those people aren't directly connected to the case. For instance, the Casey Anthony and Trayvon Martin cases generated immense worldwide attention on Facebook and Twitter.

Because of that, judges routinely admonish jurors not to read about a particular case online. And in Idaho, the Prosecuting Attorneys Association has advises prosecutors to avoid social media relationships that could create ethical problems — including being Facebook friends with judges — and never to talk about their cases online.

The grandmother of Savannah Hardin, Joyce Hardin Garrard, is charged with capital murder for allegedly making the child run and carry yard debris for hours as punishment for a lie about candy. The girl's stepmother, Jessica Mae Hardin, is charged with failing to intervene in the punishment until it was too late.

Garrard could be sentenced to death if convicted; Hardin could get life imprisonment.

Both women remain in Etowah County's jail without access to computers. But as in other high-profile court dramas, Facebook pages dedicated to the case appeared soon after Savannah's death.

The "Justice for Savannah Hardin" page includes calls for harsh sentences for the women. A "Justice for Joyce Hardin Garrard" page includes supportive posts by relatives and friends and photos of Savannah, Joyce Garrard and her husband, Johnny Garrard. Backers of the women can even order T-shirts for about $15.

Many of the posts simply express sympathy for one side or the other, but some go further. In a post last month, a person posting as Johnny Garrard disagreed with a commenter's claim about what killed the child, concluding: "I have the Death Certificate and that is not what it says."

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