SANTA ANA, Calif. – Alejandro Avila was convicted Thursday of kidnapping 5-year-old Samantha Runnion from in front of her family’s Stanton, Calif., home, then sexually assaulting and killing her.
An eight-man, four-woman jury deliberated about nine hours over two days before convicting Avila, 30, of Lake Elsinore, Calif., of all charges, including first-degree murder, kidnapping and child molestation.
The panel also decided that Avila killed Samantha during the commission of a kidnapping and child molestation, findings that expose him to a potential death sentence.
Superior Court Judge William Froeberg was to schedule the trial’s penalty phase, during which the jury will hear additional testimony before deciding whether Avila should die by lethal injection or spend the rest of his life behind bars without any chance for parole.
The jury agreed with Assistant District Attorney David Brent, who contended that the proof against Avila was overwhelming.
Brent contended that Samantha “identified her killer” with the DNA in her tears smeared inside Avila’s car as she fought for her life.
Brent also argued that Avila’s DNA was found under Samantha’s fingernails. That and other evidence, Brent said, would make it easy for the jury to convict.
Samantha was playing with a friend on July 15, 2002, when a man came by and asked about a puppy. When Samantha tried to help, the man snatched her, threw her into his car and sped off. Her nude and battered body was found the next day along Ortega (74) Highway, not far from Avila’s apartment in Lake Elsinore, and in an area popular with hang gliders.
Avila’s defense attorneys, Deputy Public Defenders Phil Zalewski and Denise Gragg, argued that the case against their client was circumstantial and failed to supply proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.