Eddie Ricky Nealy, whom a prosecutor called one of the most dangerous men in Fresno County’s history, was sentenced Friday to California’s death row for the 1985 rape and killing of Fresno teen Jody Lynn Wolf.
Judge Arlan Harrell’s voice cracked and he nearly cried in Fresno County Superior Court when he announced Nealy’s death sentence.
Nealy, however, remained calm throughout the proceedings.
Nealy, 58, received the death penalty after a jury in September 2013 convicted him of rape and the first-degree murder of 14-year-old Jody, whose nude body was discovered floating face up in a southwest Fresno canal on Aug. 15, 1985. The runaway was wearing only knee-high socks. An autopsy revealed she died of blunt-force trauma to the back of her head and had been dead at least two days.
In its decision, the jury said Nealy should be executed for killing Jody.
“It was a cold, vicious murder in the commission of a rape,” Harrell said in announcing Nealy’s punishment.
Weighing in the decision, Harrell said, was Nealy’s penchant to target women and children.
The judge said there was evidence presented at Nealy’s trial that showed he had killed Mary Charlotte Barnett in July 1988, but Nealy never was tried for it.
Barnett’s nude body was found in a southwest Fresno field. She was hogtied and had a purse strap and brassiere tightly wrapped around her neck. The coroner said Barnett died as a result of ligature strangulation and had cuts, bruises and fractures on her face, as well as on other parts of her body.
Nealy was charged with capital murder in August 1991 in connection with Barnett’s killing. But the District Attorney’s Office dismissed the murder case in October 1992 after a key witness either declined to testify or was unavailable, court records say.
Harrell said Nealy’s other convictions included three rapes, one robbery and child abuse.
Currently 747 people are on California’s death row. The last Fresno County defendant to receive the death penalty was Marcus Wesson in 2005. Wesson orchestrated the 2004 killings of nine of his children.
Nealy’s crime was also heinous.
Prosecutor Steve Wright said Nealy took advantage of a young girl who smoked and drank alcohol and hung out with older men. Jody was killed about a week after running away from home after her mother checked into a drug treatment program, testimony revealed.
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 in 2001, a relatively new crime-fighting tool called DNA testing gave police hope. The 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 Nealy, who was in prison on a drug charge when investigators came to talk to him about her death.
“I’ve never been with that child. I don’t know this child,” he told police detectives in an interview that was taped in April 2006.
During Nealy’s 2013 trial, Wright relied on DNA evidence to convict Nealy of Jody’s rape and murder.
In asking for death, Wright noted Nealy’s violent past and told jurors there was no evidence that Nealy suffered from any mental defect or disease. In fact, Nealy planned Jody’s murder when he took her to a secluded spot by the canal bank, raped and then killed her, Wright said.
But defense attorneys Eric Green and Serita Rios contend Nealy had consensual sex with Jody. Green also told jurors there were no marks or bruises on her body, and a pathologist found no evidence of a sexual assault. In addition, police never found a murder weapon or any blood on or near Jody’s clothing or on the canal bank, Green said.
At the time of the sexual encounter, Nealy was 28 years old.
Nealy was identified as a dangerous man in 2002, when Fresno police and sheriff’s officials began warning the public about him.
Posters with his name and photograph started appearing in north Fresno and on the Fresno State campus. Detectives were looking for Nealy to question about the sexual assault of a woman kidnapped at Herndon Avenue and Fresno Street about noon on Jan. 18, 2002. The kidnapper jumped into the woman’s car while it was stopped at a red light. The kidnapper then forced the woman to drive to the Lost Lake area near Friant and sexually assaulted her. The woman was able to drive off and leave the attacker behind.
Soon after the attack, Nealy fled the area and disappeared.
In April 2004, he was arrested by authorities in Los Angeles on drug possession and has been behind bars ever since.
In signing the death sentence, Harrell ordered sheriff’s officials to take Nealy to death row at San Quentin Prison.
Harrell never explained why he became emotional. But Rios said the judge’s emotions show how difficult it is to sentence a person to death.
Afterward, Wright breathed a sigh of relief.
“Nealy is one of the most dangerous people I have ever come across,” Wright said. “The citizens of Fresno County are a lot safer tonight now that he is going to San Quentin.”