Man Behind The Mask

BY JAMIE RENO

Brenda and Damon Van Dam hugged and wept as the San Diego Superior Court clerk read the verdict last Wednesday, but the neighbor found guilty of kidnapping and murdering their 7-year-old daughter, Danielle, remained steely and expressionless, even in the face of a possible death sentence. As the jury heads back to court this Wednesday to determine punishment for David Westerfield--life imprisonment or death--the fate of the 50-year-old design engineer may well hinge on his defense team's ability to show the emotion behind the glacial visage. "The jury wanted to see some sort of reaction from Westerfield," says Michael Pancer, a San Diego defense attorney. "They saw nothing."

Westerfield remains as much an enigma as when police arrested him for the abduction of Danielle, snatched from her bed on Feb. 2. While the physical evidence against him was strong--the girl's blood, blond hair and fingerprints were found in his home and recreational vehicle--his motives have never been fully explained. The prosecution argued that Westerfield had sexual fantasies about young girls, as evidenced by child porn they discovered on his home computer. They said he abducted Danielle because her mother, who has acknowledged having an open marriage, had rebuffed his advances at a neighborhood bar earlier in the evening. Yet Westerfield had no prior criminal record except for a drunken-driving arrest in 1995, and prosecutors have yet to present a history of violence on his part (for the penalty phase, the prosecution is reportedly considering raising other prejudicial information in Westerfield's past). "There's a dynamic at play here that we may never fully understand," says George Pratt, chair of psychology at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla, Calif.

Keeping Westerfield off death row will be no easy feat. Danielle's was the first in a string of abductions to grab headlines this year, and Westerfield has become something of a lightning rod for a nation's fears that even home isn't safe anymore. San Diego juries have a history of throwing the book at murderers of children: they have decided four such cases during the past eight years, and in each one the sentence was death. All 12 jurors in the Westerfield case said during pretrial questioning that they would be willing to impose the death penalty. Yet with 606 inmates on death row in California--and only 10 executions since the state reinstated the penalty in 1977--such a sentence at this point would likely be tantamount to life in prison without parole.

Westerfield's attorneys are expected to appeal on several grounds, not least of which is the fact that the jury wasn't sequestered. "The defense will point to that and suggest that if just one juror was poisoned by all the press coverage, then Westerfield did not get a fair trial," says Kerry Steigerwalt, a defense attorney in San Diego. He notes that fewer than 5 percent of such appeals ever succeed--little consolation, perhaps, to the van Dams, who face the prospect of many more tearful days in court ahead.