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Killer of Samantha Gets Death

Avila is sentenced to die for murdering the 5-year-old O.C. girl. The child's mother tells the man: 'You are a disgrace to the human race.'

July 23, 2005|Claire Luna | Times Staff Writer

Alejandro Avila was sentenced to death Friday for the kidnapping, sexual assault and murder of 5-year-old Samantha Runnion, moments after her mother unleashed three years of pent-up fury.

"You don't deserve a place in my family's history," Erin Runnion said, berating Avila through her tears.

"I want you to disappear into the abyss of a lifetime in prison where no one will remember you, no one will pray for you and no one will care when you die."

Orange County Superior Court Judge William R. Froeberg told the courtroom that with his crimes, Avila, 30, "has forfeited his right to live."

Friday's sentencing produced some of the most intense moments in the three-year-old case that prompted a statewide expansion of the Amber alert system and impelled the girl's mother to launch a neighborhood child-watch program.

The jury convicted Avila, a Lake Elsinore factory worker, on April 28 after nine hours of deliberation. Afterward, Runnion said Avila deserved to die. That also was the urging of the jurors, nine of whom attended the sentencing.

But on Friday, Samantha's mother reversed herself and told Avila she wanted him to live and think about what he had done.

"Everything in me wants to hurt you in every possible way," she told Avila, who sat expressionless, his back turned to her. "But when I'm very honest with myself, what I want more than anything is for you to feel remorse."

A woman interrupted Runnion's eight-minute discourse, yelling: "Take him out of protective custody." She was escorted from the packed Santa Ana courtroom by one of the six bailiffs.

Avila will become Orange County's 50th -- and California's 645th -- inmate on death row. He will be transferred within 10 days to San Quentin State Prison to wait, possibly for decades, for his execution. The last man executed in California was Donald Beardslee, in January, after 20 years and 10 months on death row.

None of Avila's relatives, some of whom were accused by his attorneys of beating and molesting him during his childhood, attended the half-hour hearing.

"His family has never done anything to him except try to destroy him from the day he was born," said one of Avila's attorneys, Assistant Public Defender Denise Gragg. Testimony from the six-week trial this spring showed that Avila kidnapped Samantha in the early evening of July 15, 2002, after asking the girl and her friend for help in finding a lost Chihuahua as they played outside their families' homes in Stanton. When Samantha approached him and asked how big the puppy was, Avila forced her into his car.

As Samantha clawed and scratched at her attacker during the ordeal, she left DNA consistent with tears in Avila's vehicle and some of his DNA was found under her fingernails. A day after the abduction, a hang-glider found her nude body on a cliff overlooking Lake Elsinore.

"As a final insult to her humanity," Froeberg said, "the defendant posed the victim as if she were some sort of trophy."

After Avila's arrest, TV interviewer Larry King hailed Orange County Sheriff Michael S. Carona as "America's sheriff" and called Samantha "America's little girl." President Bush praised Carona for arresting Samantha's killer.

After convicting Avila and sentencing him to death, jurors said they based their decisions largely on the DNA evidence.

"It was a pretty open-and-shut case," jury foreman Terry Dancey, 67, of Newport Beach said after the verdict was read.

As the courtroom filled for Friday's sentencing, Dancey distributed buttons bearing Samantha's photo to the eight other jurors and alternates in the courtroom. Several jurors, including Dave Peterson, 35, of Brea, brought spouses. One woman brought her teenage daughter.

"I spent two months of my life here, and I wanted to see it end the right way," said Peterson, a UPS driver with three children.

Peterson said he wasn't surprised by Avila's lack of emotion on Friday. Avila had betrayed feelings only once, he said, when his mother had a seizure on the witness stand. Otherwise, Peterson said, "There's no heart, there's no soul there. It's tragic."

Peterson said he and his wife hosted a barbecue with Erin Runnion last weekend so they could plan a Brea chapter of Samantha's Pride, a program launched after her death to monitor neighborhood children.

Runnion said in court that she wrote her statement a week ago, on the third anniversary of Samantha's kidnapping: "The night you took my baby and hurt her and scared her and crushed her until her heart stopped." The crime is incomprehensible, she said.

"I know she looked at you with those amazing, sparkling brown eyes and you still wanted to kill her," Runnion said as Samantha's stepfather, Ken Donnelly, embraced her. "I don't understand it. I never will."

She said she has tried not to let anger and vengeance consume her.

"In choosing to destroy Samantha's life, you chose to waste your life to satisfy a selfish and sick desire," Runnion said. "You are a disgrace to the human race."

Samantha would have turned 9 on Tuesday.

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