Calif. Supreme Court upholds death sentence for Danielle van Dam’s killer

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Convicted murderer David Westerfield listens to arguments in his death penalty court hearing at the Superior Courthouse January 3, 2002 in San Diego, California. Westerfield received the death penalty from Judge William Mudd for the February 2002 murder of seven-year-old Danielle van Dam. (Photo by Pool/Getty Images)

SAN DIEGO — The California Supreme Court Monday upheld the death sentence for a man who kidnapped and murdered a 7-year-old neighbor girl in the Sabre Springs community in 2002.

David Alan Westerfield was sentenced in 2003 for killing Danielle van Dam — a crime that horrified the community and stirred passions from coast to coast.

The girl disappeared from her home in early February 2002, triggering a massive search that ended with the discovery of her decomposed remains in Dehesa.

Westerfield, who lived two doors down from the van Dam family, returned home two days after the tot disappeared and told police he had been out of town all weekend, traveling around San Diego and Imperial counties in his motorhome.

The self-employed design engineer was arrested Feb. 22, five days before a volunteer search party scouring the area for the girl found Danielle’s body.

Blood was found on a jacket Westerfield dropped off at a dry cleaner’s two days after Danielle’s disappearance, as well as within his motorhome. All samples matched the girl’s DNA profile, according to the court’s opinion.

Within his motorhome, investigators found a latent fingerprint lifted from a cabinet that also matched the girl, according to testimony from an SDPD fingerprint examiner.

Fibers from rugs, bedding, carpets and other items within Westerfield’s motorhome and residence also matched fibers located on the girl’s body.

Westerfield was convicted of first-degree murder, kidnapping and possession of child pornography, and jurors found true a special circumstance allegation that the murder was committed in the commission of a kidnapping. The panel’s capital punishment recommendation was returned a few weeks later, and formalized by a San Diego judge on Jan. 3, 2003.

Westerfield’s appeal noted several instances where his attorneys felt the trial court erred during the penalty phase of the trial, which is when jurors weigh whether to recommend a sentence of death or life without the possibility of parole.

Among his claims were that the trial court allowed jurors to hear prejudicial evidence regarding an unrelated incident between Westerfield and his niece, evidence regarding Westerfield possessing child pornography, evidence regarding him allegedly stalking a woman and statements from the victim’s teachers regarding her “character and contributions.”

The court ruled that in regard to many of the referenced events, jurors had already convicted Westerfield and likely did not rely solely on the penalty phase testimony to reach a death recommendation.

Westerfield’s attorneys also argued that the trial court did a poor job of shielding the jury from outside information regarding the trial, but the Supreme Court ruling says “there is nothing in the record to indicate that the jury did not continue to abide by the trial court’s repeated admonitions and order to avoid exposure to the news and publicity concerning the case.”

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