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Man charged with murder in Samantha case

Avila appeared via a video conference on Monday.
Avila appeared via a video conference on Monday.  

SANTA ANA, California (CNN) -- Alejandro Avila was formally charged with kidnapping, sexual assault and murder Monday in last week's death of 5-year-old Samantha Runnion.

"Mr. Avila is charged with the murder during a kidnapping, with two special circumstance allegations of murder in the commission of a lewd and lascivious act upon a child under the age of 14," said Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas.

Special circumstances under California law would make Avila, 27, eligible for the death penalty if he is convicted.

Citing the special circumstances, Orange County Superior Court Judge Gary Paer denied bail to Avila and set August 9 for him to enter a plea.

Avila was not in court for the reading of the charges.

Dressed in an orange jumpsuit over a white T-shirt and sporting a goatee, he stood placidly beside Denise Gragg, his court-appointed lawyer, and listened via a video hookup from the court to the Orange County Jail, giving only monosyllabic responses to Paer's questions.

"Yes," he said several times in answer to questions about whether he understood and agreed to participating in the hearing not in person.

Charges against Avila
1. Murder
2. Forcible lewd act upon a child
3. Forcible lewd act upon a child
4. Kidnapping

CNN's David Mattingly reports on the reading of the charges (July 22)

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Watch the reading of the charges (July 22)

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Church services across Orange County remember Samantha Runnion. CNN's Thelma Gutierrez reports. (July 22)

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Avila, a production line supervisor at a plant that makes pacemakers and other medical devices, has denied his involvement in Samantha's kidnapping. His mother, Adelina Avila, said he was at a local mall at the time.

Asked why Avila was not charged with rape, Rackauckas said, "Lewd conduct can be done in any number of different ways, and rape is more specific."

Rackauckas said he would meet with the victim's family and would likely decide within two weeks whether to seek the death penalty.

Whatever he decides, he said, "Anyone who commits an act like this in Orange County will either die in prison of natural causes or will be executed.

"I feel very strongly that we will be able to bring in a guilty verdict in this case. I think that the evidence is compelling."

Despite the national attention the news media have given to the case, Rackauckas predicted he would be able to field an impartial jury in Orange County. "Our jurors give people a very fair trial."

Earlier Monday, Orange County Sheriff Michael Carona told CNN he would "absolutely" back imposition of the death penalty if Avila is found guilty.

"We have an individual who clearly has a pattern of sexual deviancy, sexual misconduct, and this time it's risen to the level where he's killed a 5-year-old girl," Carona said.

Carona told CNN he made "a tactical decision" to arrest the suspect Friday morning on suspicion of murder before lab tests found an apparent match between his DNA and DNA gathered at the crime scenes.

"There were several compelling pieces of evidence, most of which unfortunately I'm not going to be able to tell you," Carona said on CNN's "American Morning."

"Suffice it to say there were a lot of clues that this individual, that Mr. Avila left behind."

Samantha's nude body was found alongside a rural highway Tuesday in Riverside County less than 24 hours after she was abducted in broad daylight in front of a playmate in Stanton, more than 75 miles away, by a man asking for help in finding a lost puppy.

Samantha's playmate, also 5, proved invaluable, Carona said, giving a description of the man she saw snatch her friend and the car he drove.

Rackauckas said she would be called to testify in the case, despite her youth.

"The younger the witness is, the greater the problem usually in terms of having the witness qualified to testify. Often, when a very young witness is qualified to testify, their testimony is very strong."

Armed with a composite sketch, investigators appealed to the public, who came through with "substantive investigative leads," he said.

With investigators gathering clues and combining evidence to narrow down suspects, Carona said authorities began to worry that Avila might bolt and run. Orange County has a DNA lab, but analysis of Avila's DNA was not complete, Carona said.

"We weren't at the point where we could prove positively -- as I can today say -- that he's the man who did it," the sheriff said.

"But I was relatively certain, so at five minutes before 10, when we were going to have our press conference in the morning, I made the decision that, based upon probable cause, Mr. Avila should be arrested for these crimes."

The sheriff also said investigators were comparing DNA evidence linked with Avila to DNA evidence from similar, unsolved crimes.

Avila, who from Lake Elsinore, was acquitted on charges of molesting two young girls in 2001.


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