•A judge denied Eddie Ricky Nealy’s motion to move his rape trial out of Fresno County because of pretrial publicity.
A rape trial will begin May 11 for a Fresno man who is already facing a death sentence for the 1985 rape and murder of a Fresno girl, a judge ruled Monday in Fresno County Superior Court.
Judge Arlan Harrell scheduled the trial for Eddie Ricky Nealy after denying Nealy’s motion to move the rape trial out of Fresno County because of pretrial publicity.
Nealy contended he couldn’t get a fair trial in Fresno County Superior Court cause of the publicity surrounding his September 2013 conviction for raping and killing 14-year-old Jody Lynn Wolfe.
Defense attorneys Eric Green and Serita Rios worried that a jury hearing about the 2001 rape allegations involving a woman named Martha H. might convict Nealy simply because he has already been convicted of murder. Or the jury might find the trial a waste of time, leading to a mistrial.
Though the murder/rape trial was highly publicized, Harrell said Monday there has been little media coverage since then of Nealy’s pending rape trial.
In denying the motion, the judge said Nealy’s lawyer can revisit the change of venue issue if jury selection poses a problem.
Nealy, 58, has been in the Fresno County Jail since April 2007.
A jury in September 2013 voted unanimously to give Nealy a death sentence after convicting him of rape and the first-degree murder of Wolfe, whose nude body was discovered floating in a southwest Fresno canal on Aug. 15, 1985. An autopsy revealed she died of blunt-force trauma to the back of her head and had been dead at least two days.
During the trial, prosecutor Steven Wright relied on DNA evidence to link Nealy to Wolfe’s rape and murder.
When her body was discovered, investigators collected hair samples and swabbed her mouth and genital area. But the case went cold, and the evidence sat in the Fresno Police Department’s property room for more than a decade.
Then, around 2001, the relatively new crime-fighting tool of DNA testing gave police hope. Evidence was sent to the Department of Justice, and semen was found on one of the swabs. A few years later, further testing led to a DNA match of Wolfe’s suspected killer — Nealy, who was in prison on a drug charge when investigators came to talk to him about her death.
In asking for a death sentence, Wright told jurors Nealy’s violent past includes two prior rape convictions and the suspected killing of Mary Charlotte Barnett, whose nude body was discovered in a southwest Fresno field in July 1988.
Though Nealy denied knowing Wolfe, his lawyers contend Nealy had consensual sex with the girl. Green and Rios also told jurors there were no marks or bruises on her body, and a pathologist found no evidence of sexual assault. In addition, police never found a murder weapon or blood on or near the girl’s clothing or on the canal bank, Green said.
At the time of the sexual encounter, Nealy was 28.
Harrell has not formally sentenced Nealy to death. That could happen after his trial on the 2001 rape charge, in which a woman known in court papers as Martha H. contends he grabbed her as she left a party near Riverdale in southern Fresno County during the early hours of Sept. 20 that year. She said Nealy then dragged her to a nearby field and raped her at knifepoint behind a haystack. She said she escaped and reported the incident to authorities.
At the time, Nealy escaped punishment by leaving the area. But once he was linked to Wolfe’s death, prosecutors revived the 2001 rape charges.
Monday, Harrell said it will take several days to pick a jury for the upcoming rape trial. Testimony is expected to take less than a week.
Nealy’s lawyers contend the rape trial is a waste of taxpayers’ money because, if convicted, Nealy’s sentence would be life in prison — not another death sentence.
Wright, however, has said Nealy needs to be held accountable for all of his crimes and that the alleged rape victim deserves justice.
And if Nealy is convicted of the 2001 rape, he will remain behind bars for the rest of his life, in case his death sentence is overturned, Wright said.
Wright has reason to be concerned — death sentences for convicted killers Douglas Stankewitz, Fernando Caro and other Fresno County murderers have been tossed out by appellate courts. County prosecutors must now retry them to make the death sentences stick.