Saturday, July 23, 2005

Death was easy verdict

Death was easy verdict: "Death was easy verdict
Avila jurors cite Samantha's 'horrible' death in a decision that came after two briefly held out.

By GWENDOLYN DRISCOLL, LARRY WELBORN and RACHANEE SRISAVASDI
THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

SANTA ANA - The hardest thing about the Samantha Runnion murder trial for jury foreman Terry Dancey was not just viewing photographs of a 5-year-old girl's molested and beaten corpse.

It was also having to face Samantha's mother, Erin Runnion, in the minutes before the verdict was read without betraying a twinge of sympathy."

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Jurors stared at Avila as court clerk Jody Grinstead said the word "death." Avila, a former factory worker, held his head down, showing no other reaction.

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For most jurors, there was never any doubt.

"If there was ever a crime in the ... history of Orange County (that deserved the death penalty), this one begged for it," Dancey said. "It was a heinous, heinous crime."

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"It was really hard to go through," said Sullivan. "I have an 11-year-old daughter, and I look at her and all little kids in a different way now. If I even see a kid barely out of sight of their parents, I'm just panicking for them."

Both Dancey and Sullivan said they hoped the verdict would send a message to pedophiles.

"If they're going to play games they better not come to Orange County because we're going to send them to the death chair," Dancey said.

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Jim Coker, the father of one of two Riverside County girls who accused Avila of molesting them in Lake Elsinore in 1998, watched the verdict in silence from the fourth row. Avila was acquitted by a Riverside County jury of those molestations in 2001.

Coker said he did not feel relief or closure.

"When they show me a picture of his dead body, then it will be over for me," he said.

Lisabeth Heywood, an alternate juror from Rancho Santa Margarita, said she became irritated during the trial when Avila looked up at the teenage girls who had accused him of molestation before.

"I watched him throughout the trial, and he never looked up at anybody, even his family when they testified, except those girls," said Heywood, 40. "It made me angry."

Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas took down a poster-sized photo of Avila before speaking to reporters. Nearby sat a poster of three photos of Samantha. One showed the curly-haired girl lying in bed, solemnly holding her cat and water bottle.

"He will never, ever, again, hurt another child," he said, tears in his eyes.

The search for Samantha, and the subsequent manhunt for her killer, captivated a national following. Samantha became "America's Little Girl," a description coined by Orange County Sheriff Mike Carona.

She was abducted on July 15, 2002, when Avila left his apartment in Lake Elsinore and drove to the Stanton condominium complex where one of the young girls he was accused of molesting in 1999 had moved.

There, he lured Samantha, who was days away from her sixth birthday, into his car by asking her: "Have you seen my puppy?"

As Samantha stepped toward him, he grabbed her and put her in his car. She was last seen struggling to get out, and yelling for help.

Her body was found the next day off Ortega Highway in Riverside County.

More than 2,000 tips came in to the Orange County Sheriff's Department, which put Avila under surveillance after someone said he resembled an artist's drawing of the kidnapper.

The penalty phase of the trial lasted five days.

Assistant Public Defender Denise Gragg begged jurors to spare Avila's life, focusing on his childhood in a dysfunctional "family of molesters." Avila's relatives said Avila was beaten as a child. One aunt said she walked in after Avila appeared to have been molested.

Gragg and Deputy Public Defender Phil Zalewski declined to talk with reporters.

The jury's recommendation was the same as others in high-profile child-abduction slayings, including those of Megan Kanka, Polly Klaas and Danielle Van Dam, whose killers were sentenced to death.

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Was Samantha Runnion's murderer a Roman Catholic as a youth?

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