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Avila pleads not guilty to killing 5-year-old Samantha Runnion

New judge named for trial

Alejandro Avila stands behind bulletproof glass during an August court appearance.
Alejandro Avila stands behind bulletproof glass during an August court appearance.

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SPECIAL REPORT

SANTA ANA, California (CNN) The man accused of kidnapping and killing 5-year-old Samantha Runnion pleaded not guilty to the charges Monday.

A status conference hearing to discuss a trial date for Alejandro Avila was set for Friday.

Avila faces first-degree murder charges in the killing of Samantha, whom he is accused of abducting July 15 outside her Stanton, California, home while the girl was playing with a friend. Her naked body was found less than 24 hours later about 50 miles away.

Medical authorities determined the child was sexually assaulted before her death. The charges include two counts of forcible, lewd conduct upon a child younger than 14.

Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for Avila.

The not guilty pleas were entered during an arraignment hearing in Orange County, California.

Also during the hearing, a new judge was appointed to preside over the Avila trial. Orange County Superior Court Judge Bill Froeberg will now preside over the trial.

Avila's public defender had accused Judge Francisco Briseno of bias, according to reports by The Associated Press. No details for the bias charge were made public.

District Attorney Tony Rackauckas told the court Monday that he wants the case to go to trial soon.

Denise Gragg, the public defender representing Avila, said the district attorney has attended every Avila hearing and said such appearances are "absolutely likely to have an impact on whether Mr. Avila can get a fair trial."

"This case has been treated differently from the very beginning," Gragg said.

"The state is trying to kill this man. They've had an entire sheriff's department and crime lab working on this case for six months. I have two investigators and two attorneys. I'm going to do everything that has to be done to give this man a fair trial for his life."



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