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State High Court Upholds Death Penalty for Samantha Runnion's Killer

The California Supreme Court ruled Alejandro Avila received a fair trial in Orange County and denied his claims that pretrial publicity ruined his chances of being fairly tried.

Samantha Runnion. Patch file photo.
Samantha Runnion. Patch file photo.

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.”


Stan Jacobs July 01, 2014 at 11:13 AM
There is no sane excuse for mercilessly killing a little innocent girl. The mother of any victim should be offered the opportunity to personally flog the SOB in public immediately following the trial. After that, a flogging for each month that delays the rightful death penalty. Tell me where I am wrong on this!
yojodunn July 01, 2014 at 12:18 PM
hang him by his uulo-uulos'
Jeffrey Hathcock July 01, 2014 at 03:51 PM
Why did it take nearly 12 years for a court to agree that Avila received a fair trial? 12 years! At the tax payer's expense. That's our liberal judicial system at work! And all this time that piece of shit that murdered that beautiful little child has been kept alive when he should have been hung twelve years ago! Why, people, do we continue to put up with this kind of crap? Jeff Hathcock
jeff s July 01, 2014 at 08:00 PM
Just another example of human trash that needs castration by rats, followed by skinning, salting and slow roasting on stick. Feed his body to dogs.. make his mother watch the whole thing also... That's a little justice.. Not found in our stupid system that caters to and coddles evil..
Tina DelRegno July 09, 2014 at 04:03 PM
why is it that the innocent victim goes down in pain, anguish, cruelty, helplessness & death,, w/such a long long recourse for the ppl responsible? why do we always seem to protect them more than their victims..?? soo many loopholes,, why would Avila deserve a "fair" trial? Samantha didn't deserve to be kidnapped, tortured & killed.. where are her rights??? j.s.~

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