The Fresno County District Attorney’s Office moved forward Thursday with its plan to try Eddie Ricky Nealy on rape charges from a 2001 case — though he already faces a death sentence for the 1985 rape and killing of a Fresno girl.
The trial, scheduled for March 9 in Superior Court, will pose problems, lawyers said, because Nealy’s conviction in 2013 for raping and killing 14-year-old Jody Lynn Wolfe was highly publicized.
Thursday, lawyers told Judge Arlan Harell they fear a jury hearing about the 2001 rape allegations 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.
To ensure Nealy, 57, receives a fair trial, Harrell will give potential jurors a questionnaire to determine if they know about Nealy’s death penalty conviction and whether they have any preconceptions.
Outside court, Eric Green, one of Nealy’s lawyers, said the March 9 trial is waste of taxpayers’ money because, if convicted, Nealy’s sentence would be life in prison — not another death sentence.
Prosecutor Steve Wright, however, said Nealy needs to be held accountable for all of his crimes and that the alleged rape victim deserves justice.
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.
“Our goal is to keep Nealy off the streets because he is a predator,” Wright said Thursday.
In September 2013, a jury voted unanimously to give Nealy a death sentence after convicting him of rape and the first-degree murder of Jody, 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, Wright relied on DNA evidence to link Nealy to Jody'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 Jody’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 Jody, his lawyers contend Nealy had consensual sex with the girl. Green and attorney Serita 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 Jody’s clothing or on the canal bank, Green said.
At the time of the sexual encounter, Nealy was 28 years old.
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 Jody’s death, prosecutors revived the 2001 rape charges.