Westerfield guilty of Danielle van Dam's murder
SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- A jury Wednesday found David Westerfield guilty of kidnapping and killing 7-year-old Danielle van Dam, whose nude body was dumped near a desert road last winter.
Westerfield, a 50-year-old engineer, sat slightly trembling, his face impassive, as the verdicts were read and the jurors were polled individually on each count.
Prosecutors had vowed to seek the death penalty if Westerfield was convicted.
Superior Court Judge William D. Mudd said the penalty phase of the trial would begin August 28.
Seconds before the verdicts were read, Danielle's parents, Brenda and Damon van Dam, clutched each other in the last row of the small courtroom, said CNN's Charles Feldman.
Brenda van Dam, dressed casually in purple and gray, sobbed and leaned her head on her husband's shoulder after the first guilty verdict was read -- for murder.
Damon van Dam tried to reassure his wife while they awaited the verdicts by touching her shoulder. Brenda van Dam frequently held her husband's hand.
The jurors -- six men and six women -- received the case on August 8.
Westerfield was charged with the felony murder and kidnapping of Danielle, a neighboring family's child who was abducted from her suburban San Diego home in February.
Under the felony murder charge, he was accused of killing Danielle during the commission of another crime -- kidnapping -- a special circumstance which would make him eligible for capital punishment.
The jury unanimously found that special circumstance to be true.
Westerfield also was found guilty on a misdemeanor count of possessing child pornography.
Prosecutor Jeff Dusek alleged that Westerfield abducted Danielle from her bedroom in suburban San Diego late February 1 or early February 2 and took her to his house, two doors away. Her father and two brothers were asleep, and her mother had gone out for the evening.
Dusek said matching orange fibers were found in Westerfield's home and on a necklace Danielle had been wearing. A forensic DNA specialist testified that her hair, blood and fingerprints were found in Westerfield's house and in his recreational vehicle parked outside.
"No explanation except for guilt. None," Dusek said in closing arguments.
San Diego Police Chief David Bejarano credited the quality of the investigation and the thoroughness of the prosecution with the conviction.
"We firmly believed that Mr. Westerfield was that person and I am gratified that the jury looked at all of the evidence and believed so, too."
Westerfield claimed he spent many of the days following Danielle's disappearance in the RV -- alone.
Her body, discovered February 27, was so decomposed that witnesses said it was impossible to tell if she had been raped. Prosecutors alleged she was sexually assaulted and probably suffocated.
The trial began June 4, and the jury heard from 100 witnesses and saw nearly 200 exhibits and pieces of evidence.
Defense attorney Steven Feldman argued in his closing that the case against Westerfield simply did not hold up.
"There's too many holes, no smoking gun, there's too many explanations, they can't put it together," Feldman said.
Feldman said it was the lifestyle of the child's parents that set the stage for her murder, not by Westerfield but by someone the couple had unwittingly befriended.
Brenda and Damon van Dam testified about smoking marijuana and knowingly allowing each other to have sex with others, a practice known as "swinging," which "put their children at risk," Feldman charged.
Much of the defense testimony centered on information from scientists who study bugs on bodies to determine time of death.
Two forensic entomologists hired by the defense said their analyses suggested Danielle's body was dumped along the desert roadside in mid-February, long after police had placed Westerfield under surveillance.
The court will reconvene next Wednesday to begin testimony in the penalty phase. Judge Mudd said a gag order would remain in place until the penalty phase is complete.
CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin said the defense strategy will shift to show the jury that "this act was an aberration, that their client is an honorable family man."
Prosecutors, Toobin added, will counter by "focusing on the monsterousness of this act, and that there were signs that Westerfield was a sexual predator."
The Westerfield trial received extensive national coverage, in part because it is the first case in a series of child abductions and killings this year that has made it to trial.
Danielle's death has been followed by a series of child abduction cases this year, including those of Elizabeth Smart in Utah; Samantha Runnion in California; Cassandra Williamson in Missouri; Erica Pratt in Philadelphia; and two teen-age girls in California last week. Samantha and Cassandra were found dead.
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