A seasoned defense attorney was appointed Wednesday in Fresno County Superior Court to represented a transient suspected of killing 100-year-old Joe Fischer of Sanger.
Barbara Hope O'Neill made her first court appearance with David Anthony Romero, 47, who is accused of severely beating Fischer inside the elderly man's home on Aug. 8. Fischer died three days later at a hospital.
After shaking Romero's shackled hands, O'Neill informed Judge James Quaschnick that she would need a few weeks to "evaluate the case." The judge scheduled a status hearing on Oct. 26, when O'Neill and prosecutor Tim Donovan could announce the date of Romero's preliminary hearing. The hearing will determine whether there is enough evidence to order Romero to stand trial.
Until then, Romero will be held in jail without bail, the judge said.
A criminal complaint charges Romero with murder during an attempted robbery and attempted burglary – crimes that could land him on death row or in prison for life without parole if convicted. Police said Romero was linked to Fischer's death after one of his fingerprints was discovered in Fischer's home.
Romero has pleaded not guilty.
Prosecutors have not decided whether to seek death against Romero. But if they do, courtroom observers say, O'Neill's appointment gives Romero a shot at a fair trial. That's because Assistant District Attorney Kelly Keenan has described Donovan, a senior deputy district attorney, as one of his top prosecutors.
"O'Neill has a wealth of experience, including in death penalty cases," said Fresno attorney Michael Idiart, a former Fresno County assistant district attorney.
Idiart said Donovan also "is a pretty good attorney," who specializes in elder abuse but also does homicides.
Because Romero is unemployed, he is eligible to receive an attorney at taxpayers' expense.