SANTA ANA, Calif. – Jurors were shown crime scene photos of the nude body of 5-year-old Samantha Runnion (search) on Tuesday during closing arguments in the trial of a factory worker accused of kidnapping, assaulting and murdering the little girl three years ago.
"This is the hard part of the trial right now, folks," Deputy District Attorney David Brent said, holding up photos for only the jury to see. "What kind of an animal poses a little girl like this?"
Samantha's mother, Erin Runnion, was seated in the front row of the courtroom, and dabbed at her eyes with a tissue during the presentation.
Brent urged jurors to consider all the evidence presented in the five-week trial of Alejandro Avila (search), including cell phone records that placed him in the vicinity of the crime, and DNA from the slain child found inside his car.
In his closing statement, Avila's attorney Philip Zalewski argued the prosecution had failed to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. "They want you to ignore details that are inconsistent with their case and you can't do that," he said.
The prosecution was to deliver a closing rebuttal Wednesday; jurors were then scheduled to start deliberations.
A man who said he was looking for a lost puppy snatched Samantha outside her home July 15, 2002. Her body was found the next day in mountains 50 miles away.
The crime occurred amid a series of attacks on children around the nation that summer. It prompted widespread outrage and a massive manhunt for the killer.
Avila, 30, is charged with kidnapping, sexual assault and murder. If convicted, jurors will decide whether he should get the death penalty or life in prison without parole.
Evidence linking Avila to the crime includes DNA taken from Samantha and material consistent with tears or mucus found on the inside door handle of the defendant's car, Brent said. The discovery suggests Samantha may have been crying and wiped her face while trying to escape, he said.
Investigators also found DNA matching Avila beneath Samantha's fingernails, the prosecutor said.
Defense witnesses challenged the methods used to collect DNA from the girl's fingernails and the accuracy of the results. Public defender Philip Zalewski has suggested genetic evidence was planted inside Avila's car; prosecutors denied the allegation.
The defense also has pointed to inconsistencies in witness's description of Avila's car, and his ability to commit the crime in a timeline established through cell phone and banking records.
Authorities have alleged Avila — acquitted of child molestation in 2001 — killed Samantha because he feared the consequences of another trial.