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Court TV

Jury votes to send Westerfield to his death

By Harriet Ryan
Court TV

SAN DIEGO (Court TV) After indicating initially Monday that it could not reach a verdict, a jury decided that David Westerfield should die for the abduction and murder of his 7-year-old neighbor, Danielle van Dam.

Westerfield, 50, blinked hard twice, but otherwise showed no emotion as a court clerk pronounced the one-word verdict, "death." His elderly mother, Laura, wept into a tissue and had to be escorted from the court.

Danielle's mother, Brenda, dropped her jaw and began to cry softly. Her husband, Damon, seated next to her in the back row of the courtroom, clutched his wife's arm.

Judge William Mudd, who presided over the trial, will impose the sentence Nov. 22.

Westerfield's lawyers had asked the six-man six-woman panel, who deliberated about 17 hours over five days during the penalty phase, to sentence him to life without the possibility of parole. Mudd has the option of reducing the sentence to a life term, but such a move is extremely rare in California. Westerfield will be the 615th person sentenced to death in the state since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977. Ten men have been executed since that time.

A much soberer environment surrounded Monday's decision than the panel's Aug. 21 verdict finding him guilty of Danielle's February murder and kidnapping. On that day, a throng of citizens gathered around TV monitors outside the courthouse and cheered Westerfield's conviction. The streets near the downtown courthouse were largely quiet as the verdict was delivered Monday. A small group of California Highway Patrol officers stepped into one of the dozen satellite TV trucks parked on Union Street to see the verdict, but there were no crowds or hurrahs.

"I'm glad it's done," said prosecutor Jeff Dusek, who led the district attorney's team during the nearly four month trial. "There's certainly no excitement, no joy, no glee. Certainly none of those words would be appropriate in this case."

Westerfield's lawyer, Steven Feldman, who rushed to court from Yom Kippur services, looked grim and gave a brief statement deploring the death penalty.

"Of course, we're all very disappointed in the verdict," said Feldman.

The verdict, delivered at 1:46 p.m., was all the more dramatic because until a few minutes before its reading, lawyers and the media believed the panel to be deadlocked. The jury foreman sent a note to the judge before noon saying they were unable to reach a unanimous decision.

But as the panelists came back from their lunch break, they sent a second note saying they wanted to deliberate more, and just 10 minutes later, they sent a third note saying they had reached a verdict.

"We'd never seen anything like it," said San Diego District Attorney Paul Pfingst.

Two jurors interviewed afterward declined to answer questions about the turnabout, but one female panelist identified only as Juror #1 appeared to become physically ill at the reading of the verdict. About four minutes after the announcement, the juror, a county welfare department employee in her 30s, raised her hand and asked to leave the courtroom for a few moments. When she returned, she clutched a brown paper bag as if she might vomit. Defense lawyers asked that she be repolled to see if she was sure of her vote, but Judge Mudd declined to do so.

The jury's verdict is the culmination of a trial that included more than 200 pieces of evidence and 143 witnesses. Danielle's murder was the first of a string of child abductions that mesmerized the country this year, and Pfingst termed it one of the most high-profile cases in the county's history.

Westerfield snuck into the van Dams' home the night of Feb. 1 and snatched Danielle, a blonde, gap-toothed second-grader, from her canopy bed as her parents and brothers slept nearby. After her parents discovered her empty bed the next morning, volunteers conducted a massive search for her. Nearly a month later, they found her naked, badly decomposed body in a trash-strewn lot 25 miles from her house.

Prosecutors did not charge Westerfield with sexual assault, but after finding child pornography on his computers, they theorized that he had raped her in his home and then in his recreational vehicle before killing her and dumping her body.

The two jurors, the foreman and Juror #6, who spoke after the verdict Monday, said the forensic evidence persuaded them of Westerfield's guilt. Asked what the most convincing piece of evidence was, both men replied, "The blood."

"The blood on his jacket," said Juror #6, who identified himself only as Jeffrey, of a streak of Danielle's blood on Westerfield's sports jacket. "How did that get there?"

Police also found Danielle's hair and fingerprints on Westerfield's property and dog fur, carpet and fabric fibers linking him to the crime.

District Attorney Pfingst called the case "a model investigation in terms of forensics" and hailed the crime lab technicians as "heroes."

The two jurors said they put little stock in the defense's claim that the van Dam parents' lifestyle the couple admitted partner-swapping occasionally brought them in contact with many unsavory people likely to harm their daughter.

"What did it have to do with a little girl going missing and ending up dead?" said Jeffrey. "It was a little bit silly."

The panelists also downplayed the defense's strongest argument for acquittal, insect experts who said bugs found in Danielle's body indicated she was killed when Westerfield had an airtight alibi. The foreman said he considered all but the first of the five scientific experts on the bug issue "hired guns" and felt the field was too subjective to exonerate Westerfield.

In the penalty phase, the panel had to decide whether so-called "aggravating factors," circumstances that exacerbate Westerfield's guilt such as the brutal nature of Danielle's murder, substantially outweighed "mitigating factors," or circumstances such as Westerfield's clean criminal record and devotion to his children.

Both jurors said they found the way Danielle died much more compelling than any of the positive aspects of Westerfield's life and were moved by them to vote for death.

"For me, I put a lot of weight into the crime itself the circumstances of the crime and what happened directly afterward," said the foreman, identified only as Tony.

For the entire panel though, "It was a struggle coming to the meeting of the minds," he said.

"Each person had to come to peace with that decision," said Tony. Even for people, like himself, who supported the death penalty, he said, "Everybody had to go through that step of, 'Holy cow, this is real.'"

Seated before a gallery of news reporters, both men said they had not found it difficult to avoid media coverage of the case.

"I watched a lot of movies," joked Jeffrey.

Because Westerfield did not waive his right to a speedy trial, the case unfolded at breakneck pace from crime to verdict in just over seven months. A normal capital case would take a year and a half, Pfingst said.

The recentness of the crime as well as the scandal of the parents' lifestyle and the shock of a child snatched from her bed captivated the public. Citizens lined up early each morning for the 10 or so seats in the gallery reserved for the public, and local television stations pre-empted their nighttime lineups to show highlights of trial testimony.

As Judge Mudd dismissed the jurors from their duty, he reminded them of a California law, passed over the O.J. Simpson case, preventing jurors from inking book deals for 90 days after a verdict.

"Please remember you cannot contact your literary agent or sell your life story for a period of 90 days," said the judge.

Bookers from cable networks and broadcast news programs pressed business cards and letters into the palms of the two jurors who spoke publicly. The van Dams scheduled a press conference for Tuesday morning on the beach where some of Danielle's ashes were scattered.

"Today, justice was done for Danielle van Dam. Justice was done for her family," said Pfingst. "No greater harm could happen to a community than having a child taken from her bedroom and abused and killed."




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