State high court upholds death penalty for Samantha Runnion’s killer

Alejandro Avila in a 2005 file photo. The state high court upheld his death sentence Monday.
Alejandro Avila in a 2005 file photo. The state high court upheld his death sentence Monday.
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

The California Supreme Court has upheld the death sentence of a man convicted of abducting 5-year-old Samantha Runnion from a Stanton condominium in 2002 and killing her.

Alejandro Avila was sentenced to death in 2005 for Samantha’s death, which became a high-profile case and led to the implementation of a statewide Amber Alert program.

But Avila appealed his verdict to the state high court, claiming that he received an unfair trial and that the court made several errors, including denying a change of venue for the highly publicized case.


The court, however, disagreed. In a ruling issued Monday, the justices wrote that Avila’s verdict was not biased and that evidence presented during trial strongly supported his conviction and sentence.

“The crime of this case, kidnapping and then brutally killing a 5-year-old child for sexual enjoyment, was truly appalling. And the defendant was solely responsible for that crime,” the court wrote.

The ruling was written by Justice Ming W. Chin. There was no dissenting opinion.

Samantha was kidnapped on July 15, 2002, while she was playing with a friend. Her naked body was discovered the next day in a remote area near Lake Elsinore. An autopsy revealed she had been sexually assaulted.

Her kidnapping and murder drew national media attention after then-President George W. Bush praised former Orange County Sheriff Michael S. Carona for Avila’s arrest.

Samantha’s mother, Erin Runnion, became an advocate for protecting children against sexual abuse and established a nonprofit organization, the Joyful Child Foundation, in her daughter’s memory.

Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas said in a statement Monday that he was pleased by court’s ruling.


“For the heinous crime he committed against Samantha Runnion, the only appropriate punishment is death, although it still falls far short of justice,” Rackauckas said. “I can only imagine the sorrow that Erin Runnion feels every day of her life. She didn’t get to see Samantha go to prom, graduate from high school, and go off to college this year.”

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