AVILA
Nick Ut  /  AP file
Alejandro Avila, accused of kidnapping, sexually assaulting and murdering 5-year-old Samantha Runnion, stands at his arraignment in this August 2002 file photo.
updated 3/21/2005 8:47:54 PM ET 2005-03-22T01:47:54

The man charged with kidnapping and murdering 5-year-old Samantha Runnion went on trial Monday with a prosecutor saying DNA that may have come from the girl’s tears was discovered in the suspect’s car and the defense alleging the evidence was planted.

Samantha was kidnapped on July 15, 2002, as she played with a friend outside her family’s apartment. Her nude body was found a day after her disappearance in mountains some 50 miles from her home.

“Samantha Runnion’s DNA is in this car,” Assistant District Attorney David Brent said in his opening statement, holding a picture of Alejandro Avila’s green Ford Thunderbird.

But defense attorney Philip Zalewski suggested Samantha’s DNA was planted inside Avila’s car and said an earlier search had not turned up genetic material.

Avila, 30, has been in custody since his arrest three days after Samantha’s death. He faces the death penalty if convicted of kidnapping, sexually assaulting and murdering the girl.

Brent said the prosecution’s case would be based on witnesses, debit card and cell phone records, and DNA evidence. He said genetic evidence of an unspecified type was on the car’s center console.

Prosecutor: Victim's friend will testify
Brent said a 6-year-old playmate of Samantha will testify Avila walked up to the girls and asked if they had seen a Chihuahua puppy before grabbing Samantha, who screamed, struggled and yelled for help as she was dragged away.

The autopsy showed Samantha was sexually assaulted before she suffocated from force placed on her upper chest, Brent said.

Samantha’s mother, Erin Runnion, shielded her eyes with one hand and looked toward the floor as the prosecutor said the DNA may have come from Samantha’s tears. Outside of court, the prosecutor said the DNA could have come from the girl’s mucus.

In his opening statement, Zalewski said Avila’s DNA, which was collected from beneath Samantha’s fingernails, was improperly gathered and that there were several inconsistencies in witness accounts that helped lead to his arrest.

Planted evidence allegation
Brent, speaking to reporters, said the earlier search was only for fingerprints, and described as “outlandish” the defense’s suggestion that evidence was planted.

Samantha’s death came amid a string of highly publicized child abductions, including the kidnapping of 15-year-old Elizabeth Smart in Utah. More than 4,000 people attended Samantha’s funeral, and the case prompted California to post alerts on freeway signs whenever a child is abducted.

In 2001, a jury acquitted Avila of molesting two girls. Jurors in the Samantha Runnion case will be allowed to hear about the previous allegations, and Brent said the accusers from those cases would testify.

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