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Van Dams Agree With Jury Decision

Penalty: Death for her daughter's killer is 'right,' but life in prison without parole would be acceptable, mother says.

September 18, 2002|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — The mother of slain 7-year-old Danielle van Dam said Tuesday that she believes it is right that the jury recommended death for her daughter's killer--David Westerfield--but that she is prepared to accept a sentence of life in prison without parole.

"What mattered most was that this monster could never again hurt another innocent child," a tearful Brenda van Dam told reporters gathered at La Jolla Shores, a seaside park that had been a favorite of Danielle's.

"We feel that the justice system revealed the truth and that Danielle's murderer has been held accountable," said Van Dam, with her husband, Damon, by her side. "That was our hope--that Danielle's death would not go unanswered."

As witnesses at the trial, the Van Dams were prohibited from discussing the case until after the penalty phase.

The same jury that on Aug. 21 convicted Westerfield, 50, a former neighbor of the Van Dams, of kidnapping, murder and possession of child pornography also recommended Monday that he be executed. Superior Court Judge William Mudd, who still could reduce the sentence to life in prison, set Nov. 22 for sentencing.

Legal analysts say it is highly unlikely that Mudd will reject the jury's recommendation. In nine of 10 death-penalty cases in the last eight years in San Diego, judges have affirmed the sentence. Mudd did so in the only other death-penalty case in his court.

After reading a statement, the Van Dams answered questions, including one about the impact of having defense attorney Steven Feldman make an issue of their use of marijuana and experimentation with extramarital sexual relations.

Feldman asserted that the Van Dams' lifestyle may have left Danielle vulnerable to attack from someone who had been invited to the home for illicit purposes.

Feldman quizzed the couple on their use of marijuana, whether Brenda had been "dirty dancing" with Westerfield, and which of their friends they had slept with and how many times.

"It was difficult to actually answer all those questions," Brenda van Dam said. "But we knew in our hearts it was irrelevant to the case. We knew the right thing to do was to get out there and get past it so [the jurors] could see what the case was made of: all that evidence."

Two jurors said Monday that they had been particularly influenced by Danielle's blood found on Westerfield's jacket, other forensic evidence tying him to the crime, and his rambling and inconsistent comments to police about his whereabouts the weekend Danielle disappeared.

Damon van Dam, 36, a software engineer, and Brenda, 39, a self-employed book distributor, attended the trial each day, including when gruesome autopsy photos were being displayed. Damon van Dam was banned for several days when bailiffs suggested he was "mad-dogging" Westerfield outside court and might pose a threat.

Van Dam said that the bailiffs had misunderstood his intentions and that he never meant to threaten Westerfield. "I just wanted to let him know I was there," he said.

Feldman declined to comment Tuesday on possible appeal issues. Appeals are automatic in California death-penalty cases.

One possible appeal basis is Mudd's rejection of the defense bid to have the misdemeanor charge of possession of child pornography separated from the murder and kidnap case. Feldman argued vehemently that the child pornography would so prejudice the jury against his client that he could not get a fair trial.

Westerfield did not testify at the trial or in the penalty phase. "We really wanted David Westerfield to speak to us and give us what his state of mind was," one juror said.

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