A federal judge in San Francisco has overturned the conviction and death penalty of a man who was convicted of murdering two followers of the Grateful Dead band at a homeless encampment in Berkeley in 1985.
U.S. District Judge Marilyn Patel said in a ruling issued last week that Ralph International Thomas, 55, was denied a fair trial in Alameda County Superior Court in 1986 because his defense lawyer was incompetent.
Patel wrote that the defense attorney could have located as many as 10 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.
The two victims, Mary Gioia, 22, and Greg Kniffin, 18, were beaten and shot at close range on the night of Aug. 15-16, 1985.
They were so-called “Deadheads,” or followers of the Grateful Dead, and were staying at Rainbow Village, a former homeless encampment set up by the city of Berkeley, because a local Grateful Dead concert was expected the following weekend.
Patel ruled on a habeas corpus petition filed by Thomas after the California Supreme Court upheld his death sentence in 1992 and then rejected a similar habeas corpus petition by a 6-1 vote in 2006.
Prosecutors can now either appeal the ruling or go back to Alameda County Superior Court for a new trial.
Senior Assistant California Attorney General Gerald Engler said, “We’re seriously considering an appeal” and said state lawyers “strongly disagree” with the ruling.
Thomas is now gravely ill, however, according to one of his attorneys, A.J. Kutchins. The attorney said Thomas is severely physically and mentally impaired, possibly because of a series of strokes, and has been moved from San Quentin State Prison to a prison hospital at Corcoran State Prison in Kings County.
Kutchins said, “It is wonderful that after all of these years, the court has recognized that Mr. Thomas did not get a fair trial."