Experts Say Prosecutor Can't Seek Execution in 1973 Killing

After an arrest, district attorney said he could ask for the death penalty
By Bob Cronin,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 22, 2019 4:04 AM CST

(Newser) – A prosecutor has announced he might seek the death penalty in the case of an 11-year-old girl sexually assaulted and slain more than four decades ago, NBC reports. But Linda O'Keefe was killed in Newport Beach in 1973, in a period when California didn't have the death penalty—so legal experts say execution of her killer isn't possible. "I will make a decision about whether death is appropriate in this case," Todd Spitzer, Orange County's district attorney, said at a news conference. That confused people. "I'm certain that you can't impose a higher penalty for a crime than that which existed at the time of the crime," says one veteran LA criminal defense lawyer. If the murder had occurred five years later, adds a vice chairman with the California Lawyers Association, it would be a different story. As it is, "Spitzer is barred from seeking the death penalty for a crime that was committed at a time when California did not have a valid death penalty," he says.

James Neal, 72, was arrested Tuesday in Colorado Springs, Colo., and is charged with murder with special circumstances. "The detectives dogged this case," Spitzer said. They'd kept a photo of Linda, whose strangled body was found in a ditch a day after she disappeared while walking home from school, on a wall in the police department as a reminder. Last month, they had DNA from the crime scene checked against the database of a genealogical website and got a hit, the Los Angeles Times reports. They then got a DNA sample from Neal, Spitzer said, and the two matched. One of Linda's sisters, Cindy Borgeson, tells the Times she forgave her sister's killer years ago. She found solace this week in telling reporters about Linda. "She would have been 57 this year," Borgeson said. "I wonder sometimes what kind of life she would have lived." (California authorities this week also charged a man in the 1990 killing of an 11-year-old boy.)

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