Originally posted at 2:17 p.m. June 30, 2014. Edited to fix a CNS typo, add a statement from the D.A.'s office.
The state Supreme Court today upheld the death penalty for the man convicted of kidnapping, sexually assaulting and killing 5-year-old Samantha Runnion nearly 12 years ago.
The high court rejected Alejandro Avila's argument that he did not receive a fair trial in Orange County due to pretrial publicity.
The former biotech factory worker grabbed Samantha as she was playing with a 6-year-old friend outside her family's condominium on July 15, 2002, about 6:30 p.m. The tot's body was found the next day near Ortega Highway and Killen Truck Trail, an area popular with hang gliders.
Avila, 39, was sentenced to death in July 2005.
His attorneys argued he did not receive a fair trial because of publicity about the crime, which included comments from President George Bush about the defendant and the admission of evidence involving the sexual assaults of two other girls -- charges of which he was acquitted.
A third girl, who he was not charged with sexually assaulting, also testified during the trial.
"But even if we were to assume it was not reasonably likely defendant could receive a fair trial at the time of the motions (to change the location of the trial), defendant has not shown that it is reasonably likely he did not in fact receive a fair trial," according to the state high court's ruling. "On the contrary, this record shows that he did receive a fair trial."
The prosecution presented evidence that Avila bragged that the legal principle of "double jeopardy" prevented him from being tried a second time for sexually assaulting the girls.
In the aftermath of Samantha's death, her mother Erin became a champion for child safety issues, founding the Joyful Child Foundation.
Avila kidnapped Samantha by claiming to be looking for his lost Chihuahua. The other child told investigators that when Samantha bent down to ask if the dog was of a certain height, he grabbed her and forced her -- kicking and screaming -- into the car.
Avila was arrested several days later and linked to the killing through DNA found under Samantha's fingernail. The girl's DNA was also found in body fluid consistent with tears discovered in his car.
The jury deliberated about nine hours before convicting him of murder, kidnapping and lewd acts with a child, and found true the special circumstance allegations of murder during a kidnapping and while committing a lewd act.
--City News Service
Here is reaction from Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas:
“I was pleased to learn that the California Supreme Court affirmed the wish of the People of Orange County, that Alejandro Avila's punishment should be death. The decision also recognizes the hard work by all law enforcement, especially the thorough investigation by the Orange County Sheriff's Department and the tireless pursuit of justice by the Orange County District Attorney's Office.
"For the heinous crime he committed against Samantha Runnion, the only appropriate punishment is death, although it still falls far short of justice. I can only imagine the sorrow that Erin Runnion feels every day of her life. She didn't get to see Samantha go to prom, graduate from high school, and go off to college this year.
"This inmate is the poster child for the death penalty. I hope we can reform the judicial system in California so that this penalty can be carried out in due course.”