The California Supreme Court unanimously upheld the conviction and death sentence for the killer of five-year-old Samantha Runnion, rejecting arguments he could not receive a fair trial in Orange County.
Alejandro Avila, a former biotech factory worker, was convicted in 2005 of kidnap, sexual assault and murder of the young girl. He snatched Runnion, who was playing with a friend outside a condominium complex in 2002, after asking if she had seen a lost puppy.
The child’s body was found a day later in a remote area near LakeElsinore in an area popular with hang gliders. She had been sexually assaulted, strangled and struck in the head before she died.
The defense argued that his trial should be moved out of Orange County given the extensive pre-trial publicity about the case and the sheriff’s statements that he was “100% sure of Avila’s guilty. Even then-President George Bush commented on the case. But the trial judge denied the request to move the trial.
“He has not shown prejudice,” the high court ruled. Six jurors “had no knowledge of the case,” according to Justice Ming Chin
The prosecution presented testimony that Avila had sexually molested three young girls, including his girlfriend’s seven-year-old daughter.
Runnion’s DNA was found in his car and his DNA was found under her fingernails. Tire tracks that could have been made by his car were found near the body. Shoe prints near the body were the same size as Avila’s.
Following his conviction, the defense argued against execution saying Avila came from a family which had been sexually, physically and psychologically abusive and dysfunctional for generations, according to the court.
The court also refused to reconsider opinions that have previously held the death penalty does not violate international law. It also refused to consider proportionality of the punishment to the crime saying it would not help Avila.
“The crime of this case, kidnapping and brutally killing a five-year-old child for sexual enjoyment, was truly appalling,” Chin wrote in a footnote.
Case: People v. Avila, No. S135855