Sept. 17, 2002 -- The parents of Danielle van Dam expressed their relief and gratitude today to the jury that convicted David Westerfield of kidnapping and murdering the young girl.
"Our message today is one of gratitude. First we are grateful to the men and women of the jury," Brenda van Dam said. "You had an incredibly difficult job and we thank you for doing it so well."
On Monday, the jurors unanimously recommended that David Westerfield be executed by lethal injection.
"I feel it was the proper punishment," Brenda van Dam said, speaking at a news conference with her husband Damon.
Jurors had earlier sent a note to San Diego Superior Court Judge William Mudd saying they were unable to reach a unanimous decision. But later, after their lunch break, they sent a note to the judge saying that they wanted to continue working, and shortly thereafter they announced they had a decision.
The van Dams said they were prepared to accept either a life sentence for Westerfield or the death penalty. They were most concerned that Westerfield should never leave prison.
"We were relieved and happy with the guilty verdict," Brenda van Dam said. "We feel the justice system has uncovered the truth and Danielle's murderer has been held accountable."
She said she believed the spirit of her daughter would watch over the jurors.
"We know that she will take special care of you," she said.
Days of Deliberation Over Death Penalty
Westerfield, 50, shook slightly and blinked when the verdict was read Monday.
His attorney, Steven Feldman, had requested a mistrial, arguing that jurors deliberated while they were in recess, a violation of court procedure. Mudd denied the motion.
Immediately after the death penalty recommendation was made, one juror asked for and received permission to leave the courtroom.
"I can't take it any more, your honor," she said.
The panel had deliberated almost 17 hours over five days before reaching their decision. To recommend the death sentence, the jury's decision had to be unanimous.
The judge will now take the jury's recommendation into consideration and make the final decision at Westerfield's formal sentencing on Nov. 22. Under California law, Mudd could not impose the death penalty without the jury's recommendation.
Jurors Focused on Blood, Not Emotions
On Aug. 21, after eight days of deliberations, the same jury convicted Westerfield of snatching Danielle from her bedroom and killing her to fulfill what prosecutors called his sexual fantasies. Deliberations in the penalty phase were suspended from Sept. 11 until today because one juror was hospitalized for irritable bowel syndrome and another juror had a series of medical appointments last Friday.
Defense attorney Feldman had urged jurors to keep an open mind, arguing that his client was not the "worst of the worst" — despite his conviction. During his closing arguments in the penalty phase of the trial, Feldman noted that bystanders in the street outside the courthouse cheered when they heard about Westerfield's conviction. He asked jurors not to impose the death penalty just to satisfy the community's desire for revenge.
"Our community has got a lust for the killing of David Westerfield," Feldman said. "I fear you'll return a verdict of death to placate the blood lust."
After Monday's verdict was announced, two jurors said they did not feel any public pressure to convict Westerfield and recommend death. They said they realized the testimony during trial was emotional, but they focused primarily on the evidence presented to them.
"We really just needed to place her in his environment," said Juror No. 10, identified only as Tony. "I noticed it, but it didn't impact me as much as the evidence."
Both jurors said the evidence of Danielle's blood found on Westerfield's clothing significantly influenced their decision to convict him and recommend the death penalty.
"The blood — how did it get there if he wasn't involved? That played a great role [in my decision]," said Juror No. 6, Jeffrey, who asked that his last name be withheld.
During closing arguments, San Diego Deputy District Attorney Jeff Dusek told jurors that Westerfield was not the saint his family and friends had portrayed in their testimony. He argued that anything less than the death penalty would dishonor Danielle's memory.
"Society has a right to protect its people. It has even a greater right to protect the weak and the young … those who cannot protect themselves," Dusek said.
Dusek pulled out a tape measure to 51 inches, showing Danielle's height, and showed the choker necklace recovered with her body.
"Is he the worst of the worst?" Dusek asked jurors. "What would Danielle tell you? She knows. What would her parents tell you? They know."
A Different Side of a Convicted Killer
In sometimes tearful testimony, Westerfield's family and friends portrayed him as a caring father and brother who took care of his loved ones, and a devoted self-employed engineer who helped create devices to assist his community. Westerfield's children, both college students, tearfully testified that they cared about their father and recalled camping trips, barbecues and other times they spent together with him as they grew up.
Neal Westerfield, 18, said his father taught him the importance of respecting other people and accepting responsibility for one's actions. Lisa Westerfield, 21, said her father taught her the importance of getting an education and being responsible in one's work. She said she still loved her father and began sobbing when asked whether she missed him.
Westerfield's sister, identified only as Tania P. because of concerns for her safety, broke down on the stand as she described how her brother took care of their family after their father died in 1993. She said Westerfield paid the hospital bills and was "very sensitive to everybody else's needs."
Westerfield, who had appeared stoic throughout his trial, struggled to keep his composure and wiped away tears when his sister and children took the stand.
Despite attempts to convince the jury that Westerfield was not a monster, the defense had to contend with the heart-wrenching testimony of Danielle's parents, who told the court how their daughter's kidnapping and murder had devastated them.
Brenda van Dam could hardly find the words to describe the heartbreak her only daughter's murder has caused.
"I don't know where to begin," she said, wiping tears from her eyes. "She was one of the most precious gifts anyone could ever receive. I was so happy when I learned I was pregnant because I had miscarried before. … It's just too hard to explain."
Damon van Dam said his daughter loved school and playing the piano and talked about becoming a teacher or veterinarian. His daughter's death, he said, left him and relatives in a state of "shock and disbelief" that continues to linger. He told jurors Danielle's abduction and slaying had left her brothers so frightened and introverted that they were now afraid to sleep alone.
Over the objections of Westerfield's attorneys, Judge Mudd allowed prosecutors to show a video montage of Danielle's life to the jury while Brenda van Dam was on the stand.
Prosecutors also presented a 19-year-old woman who said Westerfield apparently tried to molest her when she was a child following a family outing. The young woman, identified as Jenny N., took the stand and told the court that Westerfield came into her bedroom when she was about 5, and stuck his fingers in her mouth. She at first pretended to be asleep, but bit him when he did it a second time, she said.
During their deliberations, jurors asked to review the 19-year-old's testimony as well as a videotape of an interview Westerfield gave to several reporters shortly after Danielle's disappearance and an audiotape of his interview with a police interrogation specialist.
Child Pornography Found on Computer
Danielle was last seen alive on the night of Feb. 1 when her father put her to bed. Danielle's parents discovered her missing the next morning. She was missing for almost a month before her nude, decomposing body was found off a road near an unincorporated town east of San Diego.
Investigators soon focused on Westerfield, who lived two doors down from the van Dam family in suburban San Diego.
Westerfield was also found guilty of possession of child pornography for materials found on his home office computer.
If the judge agrees with the jury's death-sentence recommendation, Westerfield will join a large backlog of 616 prisoners on California's death row. According to the state Department of Corrections, only 11 people have been executed in California since the death penalty was reinstated there in 1978.