Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Death sentence upheld in killings of Grateful Dead followers

From San Francisco Chronicle:

Death sentence upheld in killings of Grateful Dead followers

The state Supreme Court upheld a death sentence today in the 1985 murders of two Grateful Dead followers in a Berkeley campground, despite finding that the defense lawyer failed to do his job.

Even if the public defender representing Ralph International Thomas had acted competently by tracking down witnesses to support his client's assertion of innocence, Thomas still would have been convicted and sentenced to death, the court said in a 6-1 ruling. The dissenting justice said the additional evidence might have changed the verdict and that Thomas should get a new trial.
It was the second time the court had upheld Thomas' death sentence. His lawyer, Alex Reisman, said Thomas' appeal would proceed in federal court.

Thomas, now 51, was convicted of murdering Mary Gioia, 22, of Schenectady, N.Y., and Gregory Kniffin, 18, of Wilson, Conn. Their bodies were found in San Francisco Bay in August 1985, with gunshot wounds to the head.

The pair, while waiting for the next Grateful Dead concert, had been staying at a homeless encampment at the Berkeley marina called Rainbow Village. The city of Berkeley had established the compound six months earlier.

Thomas, who had been released from prison two years before the killings after serving a nine-year sentence for two sexual assaults, was living in a car at Rainbow Village.

The murder weapon was never found, but prosecutors said it was Thomas' high-powered rifle, which he said had been stolen. Another resident testified that he had seen Thomas near the couple shortly before the killings, and police said Thomas had identified Gioia's body from 15 yard away as it was being pulled from the water face-down.

The sole defense witness, Vivian Cercy, said she had seen Gioia and Kniffin with a man known as Bo shortly before their deaths, arguing about an object that looked like a gun. Cercy said she had later seen Bo wiping his hands in the tall grass nearby.

Thomas' lawyer, James Chaffee, an assistant public defender trying his first capital case, did not call any witnesses to corroborate her story. The jury deliberated five days before convicting Thomas.

The state's high court, which had affirmed Thomas' death sentence in 1992, agreed to review his claim of incompetent legal assistance in 2001. In today's ruling, all seven justices agreed that Chaffee had failed to conduct a reasonable investigation, but the majority said it made no difference.

The lawyer could have used investigators at his office to track down other Grateful Dead followers who could have confirmed the existence of Bo, whom several witnesses identified as James Bowen, said Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar. One of those witnesses said Bo had told a friend the morning after the killings that he had been swimming in the bay the night before, but stopped talking when a friend jabbed him in the ribs.

However, Werdegar said, no available witness could have corroborated Cercy's testimony or provided any concrete evidence that Bo was the killer. The evidence Chaffee failed to obtain "does absolutely nothing to undermine the case actually presented against Thomas,'' which established his guilt to a "near certainty,'' Werdegar said.

In dissent, Justice Joyce Kennard said the witnesses would have strengthened Cercy's testimony by establishing that Bo existed, had been in Rainbow Village the night of the killings and had talked later about swimming in the bay. The five days of jury deliberations showed that the case was "close and difficult'' and that additional evidence might have made a difference, Kennard said.

The case is Habeas Corpus, S063274.

E-mail Bob Egelko at begelko@sfchronicle.com.

From CBS5:


The California Supreme Court today rejected a key appeal claim of a man given the death penalty for murdering two followers of the Grateful Dead band at a homeless encampment in Berkeley in 1985.

The high court, in a decision issued in San Francisco, by 6-1 vote turned down a claim by Ralph International Thomas that alleged incompetence by his defense lawyer affected the outcome of his trial.

Thomas was convicted in Alameda County Superior Court of murdering Mary Gioia, 22, and Greg Kniffin, 18, by beating them and shooting them at close range during the night of August 15-16, 1985.

The victims were so-called "Deadheads," or followers of the Grateful Dead. They were killed in Rainbow Village, a former homeless encampment set up by the city of Berkeley near the Berkeley Marina.

Thomas claimed in a habeas corpus petition that his defense attorney was incompetent in failing to investigate several witnesses who might have shown that someone else shot the victims.
The state Supreme Court concluded that the defense attorney was deficient in failing to find one of the witnesses, but said it wouldn't have made a difference in the trial.

Justice Kathryn Werdegar wrote that even if the additional witness had testified, "listening to the prosecution case would have established in a reasonable juror's mind the near certainty that Thomas did kill them."

Thomas still has several additional avenues of appeal available, including other claims in his state habeas corpus petition and then a federal habeas corpus petition.


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