SANTA ANA, Calif. -- A jury convicted a factory worker yesterday of kidnapping and murdering 5-year-old Samantha Runnion, an Orange County girl whose 2002 death prompted widespread grief and outrage as well as stronger efforts to rescue abducted children.
After deliberating for less than nine hours over two days, jurors convicted Alejandro Avila, 30, of kidnapping, murder, and sexual assault. In the penalty phase, set to begin Wednesday, the jury will decide whether to recommend a death sentence or life in prison without parole.
Samantha's mother, Erin Runnion, cried silently in the front row of the courtroom as verdicts were read. She hugged prosecutor David Brent as the jury left.
''He is guilty! Guilty! Guilty! Guilty!" she said outside the courtroom. ''And that feels really good because nobody should get away with this. I feel a tremendous sense of relief that Samantha's fight was not in vain."
When the verdicts were read, one female juror was crying. Avila bowed his head toward the defense table but showed no emotion.
Samantha was abducted, kicking and screaming, from outside her home in Stanton on July 15, 2002. Her body was found the next day in mountains about 50 miles away, left on the ground as if it had been posed.
So many were moved by the young girl's murder that more than 4,000 people attended her funeral. After her death, Gray Davis, then governor, ordered a statewide expansion of child-abduction alerts posted on electronic billboards along freeways.
A police sketch of Samantha's abductor, based on a description from an 8-year-old friend of hers, resembles Avila. Prosecutors said cellphone and bank records indicate that Avila had been in the area where Samantha was abducted.
Samantha's DNA was found on the inside of the door of Avila's car. That evidence came from a small amount of clear liquid that the prosecution said was consistent with tears or mucous.