A federal appeals court in San Francisco today ordered a new trial in the long-running case of a man sentenced to death for murdering two followers of the band Grateful Dead at a homeless encampment in Berkeley in 1985.
A panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals by a 2-1 vote overturned the murder conviction of Ralph International Thomas, saying he didn’t receive a fair trial in Alameda County Superior Court in 1986.
The panel majority said Thomas’ trial lawyer failed to locate several possible witnesses who could have cast doubt on whether Thomas was guilty and could have pointed to another resident of the encampment as a possible suspect.
Judge Susan Graber wrote that if the additional potential testimony had been provided, “there is a reasonable probability the jury would have acquitted” Thomas.
Thomas, now 57, was convicted in the 1986 trial of murdering Mary Gioia, 22, and Greg Kniffin, 18, and was given a death penalty.
The two victims were beaten and shot at close range with a high-powered rifle early the morning of Aug. 16, 1985. Their bodies were found later that day in the San Francisco Bay near the Berkeley Marina, which was the site of a homeless encampment set up by the city of Berkeley.
Gioia and Kniffen were so-called “Deadheads,” or followers of the Grateful Dead, and were staying at the encampment, known as Rainbow Village, because a local Grateful Dead concert was expected the following weekend.
The evidence against Thomas was circumstantial, including evidence that he owned a rifle that could have been used in the murders, owned a corncob pipe found at the murder site near the Bay, and was seen with the two victims the evening before they were killed.
But Graber noted in the ruling that there was no direct evidence from fingerprints, blood or eyewitnesses tying him to the crime.
Graber, joined by Judge Carlos Bea, said three possible additional witnesses could have corroborated the testimony of the sole defense witness at the trial, who said she had seen another encampment resident named “Bo” with the victims before they were killed.
Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain dissented, saying that the prosecution had a strong case and that additional witnesses were unlikely to have affected the outcome of the trial.
Today’s appeals court decision upheld a ruling in which U.S.
District Judge Marilyn Patel of San Francisco ordered a new trial in 2009.
Thomas had appealed to the federal court system through a habeas corpus petition after the California Supreme Court upheld his conviction.
State prosecutors could appeal today’s ruling by asking an 11-judge panel of the circuit court or the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case.
A spokesman for California Attorney General Kamala Harris had no immediate comment on whether state lawyers will appeal.
A.J. Kutchins, a lawyer for Thomas in the appeal, said, “The court has recognized what should have been obvious: Ralph International Thomas did not get a fair trial and there was substantial evidence someone else could have committed the crime for which he was put on Death Row.”
Kutchins said Thomas’ health has deteriorated and he is now being held at a state prison hospital in Corcoran.
The attorney said, “It’s taken 25 years and he has lost all his health and vigor. It’s a terrible injustice.”
Thomas, who was from Texas, was not a Grateful Dead follower but was living in his car at Rainbow Village in 1985, Kutchins said.
Julia Cheever, Bay City News