Aug. 21, 2002 -- A neighbor of 7-year-old Danielle van Dam was convicted today of first-degree murder and kidnapping for snatching her from her San Diego home and killing her to act out what prosecutors said were his sexual fantasies.
Jurors announced they had reached a verdict in the trial of David Westerfield as they entered their 10th day of deliberations — which was far longer than what courtroom observers expected.
Westerfield was also found guilty of possession of child pornography for materials found on his office computer, which prosecutors suggested was a possible motive in the kidnap-slaying .
Westerfield showed no emotion as the guilty verdicts were announced. Danielle's mother, Brenda van Dam, burst into tears and hugged her husband Damon as they sat in the back row of the courtroom.
Long, Tense Verdict Watch
The same six-man, six-woman jury will also decide whether he will face the death penalty or life in prison. The penalty phase begins next Wednesday. The jurors and all parties in the case will remain on a court-ordered gag order.
Danielle disappeared Feb. 1 and was missing for almost a month before her nude, partially decomposed body was found off a road near an unincorporated town east of San Diego. She was last seen alive by her father, who said he put her to bed at around 10 p.m. Investigators focused on Westerfield, a 50-year-old divorced engineer, who lived two doors down from the van Dam family in suburban San Diego.
They said DNA evidence linked Westerfield to Danielle's kidnapping and slaying. Her blood and fingerprints were found on his clothing and in his motor home and strands of her hair were found in his home, they said.
"He's guilty of this ultimate evil," San Diego Deputy District Attorney Jeff Dusek told jurors during closing arguments. "He's guilty to the core."
Authorities say Westerfield crept into the van Dam home through an unlocked side garage door and lurked in the girl's darkened bedroom for an hour before abducting her. Prosecutors said Westerfield saw Brenda van Dam, Danielle's mother, at a neighborhood bar that night and targeted the girl to act out his sexual fantasies.
However, despite the alleged DNA evidence, deliberations took longer than many courtroom observers thought it would. Jurors asked for a readback of the testimony of both the county medical examiner and an insect expert, who were among a group of witnesses who testified about how insects found on the child's body could help determine the time Danielle died and when her body was dumped. Jurors also reviewed testimony about orange fibers that allegedly linked Westerfield to the victim as well as the pornographic evidence in the case.
Jurors also listened again to a taped interview Westerfield gave to a police interrogation specialist on Feb. 4. They also asked to look at photographs that Westerfield allegedly took of his ex-girlfriend's teenage daughter. Prosecutors told the jury that one photo of the daughter lying by the pool was sexually suggestive.
The ‘Swinging,’ Circumstantial Evidence Defense
Westerfield's defense argued that there was no evidence that he was ever in the van Dam household: no fingerprints, no DNA, no signs of a struggle from abduction. Defense attorney Steven Feldman focused on the alleged "swinging" lifestyle of Danielle's parents to suggest that someone else could have entered the home, kidnapped and killed the little girl.
On the night of Danielle's disappearance, Westerfield said he had been hanging out with Brenda van Dam and her friends in a bar, where he allegedly was seen dancing with her as her husband stayed home.
Brenda van Dam denied dancing with Westerfield. However, she and Damon both testified that they smoked marijuana the night Danielle disappeared, and had used drugs and swapped spouses for sex in the past.
Feldman suggested that the van Dams' lifestyle left Danielle vulnerable.
"If you engage in sex and drug behavior, who are you inviting into you home?" Feldman asked. "There's risks. When you invite the world in, you don't know what it will bring.
"We don't blame the parents," Feldman continued. "We don't think they recognized the dangers of the lifestyle they led."
Feldman argued that there was reasonable doubt that Westerfield killed Danielle because authorities could not pinpoint exactly when and how the girl died. Danielle's body was so decomposed, authorities could not determine the manner of her death.
He also argued that Westerfield could not have killed Danielle and dumped her body because police had him under 24-hour surveillance starting the morning of Feb. 5, days after she was abducted. Defense experts testified that bugs started infiltrating the girl's body during the time Westerfield was under surveillance, suggesting that he could not have killed her.
‘Beyond a Reasonable Doubt’
Still, the prosecution pointed out that Westerfield drove his motor home to an area in the desert outside San Diego for the weekend on the same morning Danielle was reported missing. Before arresting him, police searched Westerfield's home multiple times, impounded his Toyota sport utility vehicle and motor home, and had him provide a DNA sample. Investigators who searched the mobile home said the smell of bleach was overwhelming.
Dusek also pointed out to jurors that Westerfield was seen at a dry-cleaning business days after Danielle's abduction, dressed only in his underwear on a cold morning. He gave the dry cleaners two comforters, two pillow shams and a jacket. Investigators found Danielle's blood on Westerfield's jacket and hair from her dog was discovered on the comforter.
"That in and of itself tells you he's guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. … That alone," Dusek said in closing arguments.
More than 100 witnesses were called during the two-month trial. Most murder cases can take up to a year to come to trial, but Westerfield invoked his right to a speedy trial.