Death penalty trial starts in Fresno, 28 years later

July 10, 2013 12:00:00 AM PDT
Fresno County's first death penalty trial since Marcus Wesson is crawling to the starting gate. 28 years after a teenager was raped and murdered, her family is less than a month away from seeing a suspect on trial for the killing.

The rape and murder trial against 56-year-old Eddie Nealy has officially started. Lawyers are sifting through about 600 potential jurors to choose the jury that'll hear the case, starting next month.

Nealy already has two rape convictions and a lot of felony charges in his past, including a 1991 rape and murder case that was dismissed right before trial. This time around, prosecutors have tools that didn't even exist 20 years ago.

Justice is coming slowly for the family of Jody Wolfe. Detectives found the 14-year-old in this fast-moving Fresno canal in August 1985. They believe the current carried Wolfe about a quarter-mile from the spot where they found her clothing the next day. But it took 22 more years before the most important piece of evidence surfaced.

In 2007 -- as convicted rapist Eddie Nealy sat in prison -- the state department of justice used new DNA technology to match his genetic material to a sample taken from Wolfe's body during her autopsy.

"Clearly the DNA ties him to the young girl, but you need something more: Why would he have killed her? Where was he at the time?" said ABC30 legal analyst Tony Capozzi.

Capozzi says the murder charge will be much tougher to prove than the rape. Coroners determined Wolfe died from blunt force trauma to the head, but prosecutors will have to nail down the time frame and connect the dots to Nealy. If they can, Nealy is eligible for the death penalty, which complicates the process of picking a jury.

"Hundreds and hundreds of jurors are going to have to be brought in to be questioned to see if 1) can they spend the time? And 2) can they sit on this kind of case and can they vote for a death penalty?" Capozzi said.

Each of the 600 potential jurors who reported for duty over the last three days has filled out a 23-page questionnaire. Questions range from personal -- like "Do you know Eddie Nealy?" -- to philosophical -- like "How do you view the death penalty?"

Wolfe's family is hoping they'll soon see 12 people who view death as the only option for Nealy.

Jury selection and pre-trial motions are expected to take up the rest of this month. Opening statements are scheduled for August 5 and the trial could last six weeks.


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