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Orange County

Avila Loses Bid to Block Evidence

Questioning validity of warrant in Samantha Runnion case, defense sought to suppress physical evidence.

August 02, 2003|H.G. Reza | Times Staff Writer

An Orange County judge Friday denied a defense motion to suppress evidence against the man accused of kidnapping, sexually assaulting and killing 5-year-old Samantha Runnion, and both sides stuck with plans to put Alejandro Avila on trial in January.

Assistant Public Defender Denise Gragg had argued that the information police relied upon in a search warrant affidavit to collect physical evidence against the Lake Elsinore man did not meet the probable-cause standard.

Gragg also wanted Superior Court Judge William R. Froeberg to throw out Avila's school, employment and social service records, which prosecutors want to use against him.

"They are not evidence of a crime," Gragg said.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Jim Mulgrew argued that prosecutors needed those records to demonstrate Avila's character, adding that they would help show his ability to plan and carry out Samantha's abduction and murder.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday August 13, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 55 words Type of Material: Correction
Samantha Runnion case -- An article in the Aug. 2 California section of the Orange County Edition reported that the Orange County district attorney has assigned two deputies to the prosecution of Alejandro Avila, who is charged with killing 5-year-old Samantha Runnion last year. The district attorney says he has assigned more than two attorneys.

Avila has pleaded not guilty.

In denying all of Gragg's requests, Froeberg said there is "more than enough probable cause" to support the warrants, which, like most documents in the case, have been sealed at the request of prosecutors.

Samantha was playing with a friend at her Stanton condominium complex July 15, 2002, when she was seized and forced into a car by a stranger. Her body was found the next day in the Cleveland National Forest. Avila, 28, was arrested July 19 after several tipsters had called police to say he resembled the man portrayed in a police sketch done with the help of Samantha's playmate.

Avila's case is unusual in that many high-ranking public officials have declared him guilty. Sheriff Michael S. Carona, whose frequent media briefings garnered national attention from the time of her disappearance until her funeral, announced that he was "100%" certain about Avila's guilt on the day he was arrested.

President Bush has publicly labeled Avila as Samantha's "killer." In a Washington speech on homeland security before an audience of lawmakers, fire and rescue workers, police officers, and other state and local officials, Bush called for the group to recognize Carona, who he said was "the fellow who recently apprehended the killer of Samantha Runnion."

Although two of his deputies are assigned to prosecute the case, Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas has often appeared at Avila's court hearings and has also made the rounds of national talk shows to discuss the case. He is seeking the death penalty for Avila.

On Friday, Rackauckas sat at the prosecutor's table.

As Gragg argued her motion to suppress evidence, Rackauckas stood up and interrupted her, telling Froeberg that they should first hear the motion to unseal the court records in the case.

This caught Gragg and the judge by surprise, because the defense and prosecution agreed last month that the records should remain sealed. Froeberg reminded Rackauckas that he had issued an order to keep briefs, exhibits and other filings sealed, and that he had not received a request from either side to unseal them. The judge asked Rackauckas to return for a hearing Aug. 25 if he wanted to ask the court to unseal the records.

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