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Cameras Are Banned From Runnion Kidnap Hearings

September 17, 2002|CHRISTINE HANLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Worried about tainting a jury, a judge Monday banned cameras and audio equipment from recording pretrial hearings for the Lake Elsinore man accused of kidnapping and killing 5-year-old Samantha Runnion.

In his ruling, Orange County Superior Court Judge Francisco P. Briseno rejected arguments made by three attorneys representing the Los Angeles Times and other newspapers and television stations.

Briseno did not rule on whether cameras would be allowed during an actual trial. The preliminary hearings, which both sides agreed to begin Oct. 11, will determine whether there is a case against Alejandro Avila.

Avila, 27, has pleaded innocent to kidnapping, sexually assaulting and killing Samantha. Prosecutors have said they will seek the death penalty.

Facing for the first time the man accused of killing her daughter, Erin Runnion wept quietly throughout the proceedings. She and her boyfriend, Ken Donnelly, were flanked by district attorney's investigators in the front row. The couple did not speak to reporters afterward.

Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas told the judge that the prosecution had no objection to cameras in court but that Samantha's family did.

Avila's public defender, Denise Gragg, argued against having cameras in court, citing death threats against Avila and her office. She also said more publicity could taint a jury and turn the proceedings "into the equivalent of 'The Jerry Springer Show.' "

Jean-Paul Jassy, an attorney for The Times, the Orange County Register and the Associated Press, argued that still cameras would not be obtrusive or disruptive, and would give the public a window into the proceedings.

"This is not about 'The Jerry Springer Show' because Jerry Springer invites discord," he said. "This court, of course, will not be doing that. And this trial is of far more magnitude."

Samantha was abducted July 15 as she played with a friend near a row of garages at her Stanton condominium complex. Her body was found the next day along a mountain road between Orange County and the Riverside County community of Lake Elsinore. She was sexually assaulted and strangled.

Documents supporting the search of Avila's apartment and his subsequent arrest remain sealed. But a probable cause statement obtained Monday confirms reports that he was arrested based on circumstantial evidence. Among the reasons cited by investigators were that he had ties to the Stanton area and the remote highway where the body was found, and that he and his car matched descriptions given by Samantha's playmate.

Investigators also determined after hours of interrogating Avila that he had no alibi and had lied to them, according to the statement. They suggested that preliminary analysis of DNA recovered at the scene would further implicate Avila, the record shows.

"Mr. Avila could not be accounted for during the time of Samantha Runnion's abduction and drives a vehicle similar and [the] same color as [witnesses] observed. Mr. Avila also matches the composite drawing made by witness," investigator Gary Jones wrote in the statement.

"Through mounting evidence and statements made by witnesses, after interviewing Mr. Avila and determining that initial statements made by Avila to be nontruths, investigators believe that the trace evidence and DNA currently being worked by the Orange County sheriff's crime lab will prove Mr. Avila's involvements with the abduction and subsequent death of Samantha Runnion."

Law enforcement sources have told The Times that cell phone records contradicted Avila's alibi that he was shopping at the Ontario Mills Mall during Samantha's kidnapping.

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