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Tuesday, September 17, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Execute Westerfield, says San Diego jury, citing horrific slaying of 7-year-old

Los Angeles Times

SAN DIEGO — After five days of deliberations, a jury recommended yesterday that David Westerfield be executed for the kidnapping and murder of Danielle van Dam, 7, whose disappearance in February turned out to be the first in a string of high-profile child abductions this year.

Westerfield, 50, a self-employed design engineer, showed no emotion as the verdict was read. One of his lawyers leaned over and told him, "I'm so sorry."

Danielle's mother, Brenda, cried, and the girl's father, Damon, shut his eyes. They left the courthouse without talking to reporters.

Superior Court Judge William Mudd set Nov. 22 to announce whether he will accept the jury's recommendation or reduce Westerfield's sentence to life in prison without parole. Only one death penalty in 10 San Diego cases has been reduced to a life sentence in the past eight years.

Two male jurors, who would not give their full names, said the most damning piece of evidence against Westerfield was the discovery of Danielle's blood on his jacket. The same jury on Aug. 21 found him guilty of murder, kidnapping and possession of child pornography but was forbidden from discussing the case until yesterday.

"We really wanted David Westerfield to speak to us and give us what his state of mind was," said the jury foreman. Westerfield never took the stand in his defense.

Jurors said the horrific nature of the killing led them to recommend the death penalty.

The two jurors also said revelations about Brenda and Damon van Dams' marijuana use and extramarital sex, raised by Westerfield's attorneys, were considered irrelevant by the panel.

Westerfield lived two doors away from the van Dam family. The girl sold him Girl Scout cookies days before her abduction.

Danielle was last seen Feb. 1, when her father put her to bed in her second-story bedroom, decorated in her favorite colors, pink and purple. Her remains were found nearly a month later along a road outside the city, too decomposed to determine the cause of death or whether she had been sexually assaulted.

Defense attorneys had tried to convince jurors the "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll" lifestyle of Danielle's parents left her vulnerable to attack. The kidnapper, they said, might have been someone who came to the home for sex or illegal drugs.

In his closing argument, lead defense attorney Steven Feldman had begged jurors not to hold his abrasive personality or controversial tactics against his client.

"I don't think we put a lot of weight on Feldman and his likability," said a second juror. "We really focused on what came out in court: the evidence."

Feldman limited his comments to, "We will not appeal this case on the streets of San Diego through the media." By state law, the case will automatically be appealed.

Feldman had argued during the penalty phase of the trial that Westerfield was not the "worst of the worst" and did not deserve to be executed.

San Diego County District Attorney Paul Pfingst praised the jury for agreeing with his trial prosecutors — Jeff Dusek and George "Woody" Clarke — that Westerfield should be executed.

"Today, justice was done for Danielle van Dam, justice was done for her family," Pfingst said.

Danielle's blood was found in Westerfield's recreational vehicle and on his jacket. Her hair was found in the RV and the bedroom of his home, and fibers found on her body were identical to fibers found at the home.

In the upscale Sabre Springs neighborhood where Westerfield and the van Dams were neighbors, residents reacted with relief. "I'm happy," said Jojo Trine, who lives across the street from Westerfield's former house. "That's exactly right."

There were indications at least one juror was a holdout until the final moment. At midmorning, the jury foreman sent Mudd a note saying the jury was deadlocked. But when court convened in the early afternoon, the jury handed Mudd a unanimous decision.

Deluged with requests for interviews, the van Dams, through a spokeswoman, said they will speak today.

Danielle's slaying preceded other high-profile abductions this year, including those of Elizabeth Smart in Utah, Samantha Runnion in Orange County, Calif., and Cassandra Williamson in Missouri. Samantha and Cassandra were killed; Elizabeth remains missing.

Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.

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