Reversal In Deadhead Murder Mystery

A man convicted and sentenced to death in the 1985 murder of two Grateful Dead fans in a Berkeley, Calif., homeless campground saw those decisions overturned Sept. 15 by a federal judge in San Francisco.

Judge Marilyn Hall Patel overturned the convictions, saying the jury never heard from numerous witnesses who would have suggested another man was the killer.

The trial lawyer for defendant Ralph International Thomas should have located those witnesses, whose testimony “would have led the jury to harbor a reasonable doubt” about Thomas’ guilt, Patel said.

If the name seems familiar, Patel was also the presiding judge in the original suit that eventually brought down Napster.

The ruling entitles Thomas, 55, to a new trial in Alameda County Superior Court. A.J. Kutchins, one of his appellate lawyers, said his gratitude for Patel’s decision was tempered by medical reports that Thomas has suffered several strokes, has severe dementia and can’t care for himself.

“He’s basically had his adult life taken away from him, and he’s got very little left,” Kutchins told the San Francisco Chronicle. But Kutchins was pleased the judge agreed his client didn’t get a fair trial and “was convicted of a crime that there is every reason to think that he did not commit.”

Thomas was convicted of murdering Mary Gioia of Schenectady, N.Y., and Gregory Kniffin of Wilson, Conn. They had been following the Dead on tour and were staying at a homeless camp at the Berkeley Marina known locally as “Rainbow Village.” Their bodies were found in San Francisco Bay in August 1985 with gunshot wounds to the head.

Thomas previously served nine years in prison on a sexual assault conviction and was living in a car at the camp. The murder weapon was Thomas’ rifle, according to prosecutors, but he insisted it had been stolen. Thomas reportedly identified Gioia’s body as it was being pulled from the water face-down, and a witness said he had seen Thomas near the couple before the killings.

The sole defense witness said she had seen Gioia and Kniffin shortly before their deaths arguing with a different man about an object that looked like a gun. No witnesses were called to corroborate the witness’ story.