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A judge today ordered a psychiatric examination for a man who was convicted of murdering two Grateful Dead followers at a homeless encampment in Berkeley in 1985 but recently won the right to a new trial. Ralph International Thomas, now 58, is charged with murdering Mary Gioia, 22, and Greg Kniffin, 18, early the morning of Aug. 16, 1985, at the encampment near the Berkeley Marina, which was set up by the city of Berkeley and called the Rainbow Village. The two victims were beaten and shot at close range with a high-powered rifle and their bodies were found later that day in the San Francisco Bay near the Berkeley Marina.
Thomas was scheduled to enter a plea today, but nothing has been simple in the long-running case, which has been the subject of numerous appellate rulings since he was convicted of two counts of murder plus the special circumstance of committing multiple murders and sentenced to the death penalty at his trial in Alameda County Superior Court in 1986. Judge Carrie Panetta suspended Thomas’ case after defense attorney Susan Walsh said she wasn’t ready for him to enter a plea because she has concerns about whether he is competent to stand trial based on her recent conversations with him.
Three psychiatrists will now examine Thomas and their findings will be presented at a hearing in Panetta’s courtroom on Nov. 15. According to the evidence that was presented at Thomas’ trial 26 years ago, Gioia and Kniffin were so-called “Deadheads,” or followers of the Grateful Dead, and were staying at the encampment 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. The California Supreme Court upheld Thomas’ conviction and upheld his death sentence in 1992 and rejected a habeas corpus petition by a 6-1 vote in 2006.
The state court’s 2006 ruling came after an Alameda County judge held a hearing earlier that year on a petition by Thomas’ appellate lawyers that his defense lawyer during his trial, former Alameda County Assistant Public Defender James Chaffee, failed to present 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 Alameda County judge ruled that Chaffee had conducted an adequate investigation and even if he had located more defense witnesses it wouldn’t have affected the outcome of Thomas’ trial. But U.S. District Court Judge Marilyn Patel on Sept. 9, 2009, overturned Thomas’ conviction, ruling that Chaffee was incompetent and failed to locate witnesses who might have cast doubt on Thomas’ guilt. Former Alameda County Assistant District Attorney James Anderson, who prosecuted Thomas in 1986, blasted Patel at that time, calling her ruling “an abuse of judicial discretion” and “an outrageous bit of judicial jokery.”
However, on May 10 a panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, by a 2-1 vote, upheld Patel’s ruling and order that Thomas have a new trial, saying that he didn’t receive a fair trial. Alameda County Senior Deputy District Attorney James Meehan said today that the California Attorney General’s Office filed a petition last week asking the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse the 9th Circuit’s ruling and reinstate Thomas’ conviction and death sentence. Meehan said the petition alleges that Patel and the 9th Circuit panel acted improperly by ignoring the findings of the Alameda County judge who conducted the hearing on the case in 2006. He said his office will file a brief supporting the attorney general’s petition. However, Meehan told Judge Panetta that if the case goes to trial a second time his office won’t seek the death penalty for Thomas again.
He said after today’s hearing that the decision not to seek the death penalty at a second trial was based on Thomas’ declining physical and mental health, his age and the age of the case. Meehan said Thomas was diagnosed with dementia in 2009 and an examination revealed that he also suffered a brain injury from a stroke. Thomas, who has a beard and is now balding, leaned over in his chair and spoke animatedly with Walsh in court before his hearing began today. Prior to the 1985 deaths of Gioia and Kniffin in Berkeley, Thomas was convicted of 12 felony offenses, including kidnapping, rape, sodomy and armed robbery. Meehan said the families of Gioia and Kniffin aren’t happy that the case has dragged on for such a long time and at the prospect that Thomas will get another trial.
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