SAN DIEGO – The parents of 7-year-old Danielle van Dam, who was taken from her bedroom and killed by a neighbor, took the stand at the man's sentencing hearing Wednesday to talk about their little girl.
Danielle loved school and playing the piano and talked about becoming a teacher or a veterinarian, Damon van Dam told the jury in a subdued voice.
"She wanted to be a mommy. She loved baby dolls," he said.
His daughter's abduction on Feb. 2 left the family devastated and her two brothers frightened and more introverted, he said. They now share a bedroom, and "we make sure everything's locked up real tight now."
The jury that last week convicted David Westerfield, 50, of kidnapping and murdering Danielle began hearing the penalty phase of his trial Wednesday to determine whether he deserves the death penalty. He faces either death by lethal injection or life in prison without possibility of parole.
In opening remarks, Deputy District Attorney Jeff Dusek asked jurors to recommend a sentence for Westerfield "based on what he deserves."
Brenda van Dam, Danielle's mother, cried as she spoke of Danielle's birth and again when asked how her death has affected the family.
"She was one of the most precious gifts anyone could ever receive. I was so happy the day I found out I was pregnant," she said. "Now it's too hard to explain."
The van Dams have repainted Danielle's room, where the girl was last seen when her father put her to bed the night of Feb. 1, and turned it into a playroom for her brothers, she said.
"A lot of times I can't sleep at night and I go in there to cry. I go in there to try to feel her, try to smell her."
Brenda van Dam again cried as the court viewed a videotape showing Danielle as a baby, in Halloween costumes and hamming for the camera during a trip to Walt Disney World last Christmas.
Westerfield appeared to watch the video intently. One juror cried as it was played; another averted his eyes from it.
Defense attorney Steven Feldman, speaking in a tone much more somber than during the two-month trial, said he would call witnesses to talk about his client's "wonderful, caring" side and about how medical devices invented by Westerfield, a self-employed design engineer, had helped many people build better lives.
"We don't try to excuse the crime. There is no excuse," he said. "But David Alan Westerfield is not the worst of the worst."
Feldman appealed to jurors who may hold lingering questions about his guilt. "We don't question your verdict, but we do continue to have doubts," he said. "This is now a life or death decision."
On the stand, Damon van Dam recalled feelings of "shock and disbelief" when Danielle disappeared. The days and weeks that followed were all a blur, he said.
"Sometimes it seems like years since Feb. 2," he said. "Sometimes it seems like minutes."
Danielle's disappearance prompted a massive search involving thousands of volunteers and police officers. Her nude body was found nearly a month later along a rural road east of San Diego, too decomposed for the coroner to determine the cause or exact time of death.
Prosecutors argued during the trial that child pornography found in Westerfield's home showed he was sexually attracted to young girls.
On Wednesday, prosecutors called a 19-year-old niece of Westerfield's former wife to the stand to recall an incident she says occurred when she was about 5 years old.
The woman, identified only as Jenny N., said she awoke one night to find Westerfield touching her and sliding his fingers into her mouth. She said she pretended to remain asleep, but when Westerfield put his fingers in her mouth a second time, she bit him "as hard as I could."
She recalled telling her mother, "Uncle Dave was in my room and he was being weird and it bothered me."
Under cross-examination, the woman said she had no other incidents with Westerfield, whom she has known all her life. Feldman also noted inconsistencies in statements she gave to prosecutors and the defense.
The first witness prosecutors called Wednesday was Danielle's teacher in kindergarten and first grade, Amy Destefani, who recalled the youngster as "a sweet, polite, hardworking little girl."
Danielle "wanted to make sure no one's feelings were hurt," she said. If the young girl saw another child alone, she would invite them to play with her friends.
"She never wanted anyone to feel alone or sad," Destefani said. During her testimony, Damon van Dam began crying and his wife put her arm around him.