SANTA ANA, Calif. – A jury convicted a factory worker Thursday of kidnapping and murdering 5-year-old Samantha Runnion (search), an Orange County girl whose 2002 death prompted widespread heartbreak, outrage and stronger efforts to rescue abducted children.
After deliberating for less than nine hours over two days, jurors convicted Alejandro Avila (search), 30, of kidnapping, murder and sexual assault. In the penalty phase, set to begin Wednesday, the jury will decide whether to recommend a death sentence or life in prison without parole.
Samantha's mother, Erin Runnion (search), hugged prosecutor David Brent as the jury left, and spoke to reporters with tears in her eyes outside the courtroom.
"He is guilty! Guilty! Guilty! Guilty! And that feels really good, because nobody should get away with this," said Runnion, who was flanked by Brent and Sheriff Michael Carona.
"I feel a tremendous sense of relief," she said, "that Samantha's fight was not in vain."
Ticking off the names of Samantha and other abducted children, she called for parents to take steps to protect their children, the objective of a foundation she launched in the months after her daughter's death.
"How many children do they have to take away, before we as Americans get organized?" she asked. "We're going to organize our neighborhoods. We're going to talk to our children."
When the verdicts were read, one female juror was crying. Avila bowed his head toward the defense table but showed no emotion.
Samantha was abducted, kicking and screaming, from outside her home in Stanton on July 15, 2002. Her nude body was found the following day in mountains some 50 miles away, left on the ground as if it had been posed.
So many were moved by the young girl's murder that more than 4,000 people attended her funeral. After her death, then-Gov. Gray Davis ordered a statewide expansion of child abduction alerts posted on electronic billboards along freeways.
A police sketch of Samantha's abductor, based on a description from an 8-year-old friend of hers, resembles Avila. Prosecutors said cell phone and bank records indicate Avila had been in the area where Samantha was abducted, DNA matching his genetic profile was found under her fingernails, and sneaker and tire prints found near the girl's body also matched with the defendant.
Samantha's DNA was found on the inside of the door of Avila's car. That evidence came from a small amount of clear liquid that the prosecution said was consistent with tears or mucous.
Avila, of Lake Elsinore, had been acquitted of molesting two girls in 2001 in neighboring Riverside County, and authorities said they believe he killed Samantha to avoid another such trial.
Defense attorney Philip Zalewski contended that prosecutors had a "weak, circumstantial case," and that Avila couldn't have committed the crime within the timeline established by investigators.
Zalewski claimed the DNA from the fingernails was not reliable because it was not properly collected or analyzed, and suggested that the sample found in the car was planted by investigators -- an allegation prosecutors denied.
Judge William Froeberg allowed the girls whom Avila was acquitted of molesting to testify in the murder trial, as well as a third girl who also claims Avila abused her. One of the girls in the 2001 case lived for a time in the same apartment complex as Samantha.
Samantha's killing occurred amid a series of incidents involving children, including the murder of 7-year-old Danielle van Dam of San Diego and the abduction of 15-year-old Elizabeth Smart in Utah.