SANTA ANA, Calif. – A jury Monday decided a factory worker should get the death penalty for killing Samantha Runnion (search), a 5-year-old girl who was seized kicking and screaming outside her home in a case that stirred outrage and led to stronger efforts to rescue abducted children.
Alejandro Avila (search), 30, was convicted last month of murder, kidnapping and sexual assault in the 2002 slaying.
The jury had a choice between the death penalty and life in prison without parole, and took about seven hours over two days to decide.
Sentencing was set for July 22. A judge can set aside a jury's death penalty recommendation, but that is extremely rare.
Outside court, Samantha's mother Erin Runnion (search) tearfully thanked the jurors, but added: "The fact of the matter is one is down, but my baby is still gone and there are still going to be children victimized if we don't do something to stop it."
Erin Runnion has started a foundation to help parents protect children from predators.
Samantha was abducted from outside her Stanton home. Her nude body was found the following day in the mountains some 50 miles away, left on the ground as if it had been posed. Authorities said she had been suffocated by pressing on her chest.
Prosecutor David Brent told the jury it was "just as bad a crime as any human can commit."
Defense attorneys had urged jurors to spare Avila's life, arguing that the abduction was an impulsive act prompted by a brutal childhood in which he was beaten by his father, raped by an uncle and neglected by his mother.
After Samantha's death, then-Gov. Gray Davis (search) ordered a statewide expansion of child abduction alerts posted on electronic billboards along freeways. So many were moved by the little girl's murder that more than 4,000 people attended her funeral.
A friend of Samantha's gave police a description of Samantha's kidnapper that produced a police sketch resembling Avila.
During the trial, prosecutors used cell phone and bank records to show that Avila had been in the area where Samantha was abducted. Also, prosecutors said his DNA was under her fingernails, and sneaker prints and tire tracks found near the girl's body were connected to the defendant. And Samantha's DNA was found on the inside of the door of Avila's car, probably from tears or mucus, prosecutors said.
The defense challenged the reliability of the DNA analysis and suggested that the material found inside Avila's car had been planted.