This story is the twentieth in a series, Unrequited Innocence, that looks at cases where people were sentenced to die and have not been exonerated despite significant evidence of innocence.
In 1986 the bodies of two so-called “Deadheads” — fans of the Grateful Dead who traveled with the group on tour — were found beaten and shot to death in the San Francisco Bay.
Mary Regina Gioia, 22, and Gregory Allen Kniffin, 18, had been staying at a nearby Berkeley homeless encampment known as Rainbow Village. Ex-con Ralph International Thomas, then 31, who also was staying at the camp, was arrested by Berkeley police and charged with murder 10 days later.
According to the accounts of camp residents: Thomas had been drinking beer with a group that included the victims the night before the murders. Thomas owned a rifle, and the morning the bodies were found told other residents that his rifle had been stolen. He told one he was concerned that it was used to murder the victims, and he would be in trouble.
The police never found the rifle, and did not find evidence of blood or DNA of the victims on Thomas’ clothing.
At the preliminary hearing following Thomas’ arrest, a homeless woman named Vivian Cercy testified for the defense that she had seen two people who resembled the victims with a blond man named “Bo” near the encampment shortly before they were murdered. Cercy said that as she sat in the car with her daughters, she heard the woman say, “I don’t want any part of this, I’m going,” and then walk away.
Cercy said she heard the blond man tell the other man present, “I’ll take care of this,” and then, about 15 minutes later, heard what sounded like firecrackers.
Cercy was not available at trial, so her preliminary hearing testimony was read to the jury. Thomas’s attorney, Deputy Alameda County Public Defender James Chaffee, produced no witnesses to support Cercy’s account of another potential suspect. The state called in rebuttal another resident of the camp who said Cercy later told him that her testimony was not true and she had not seen anything.
The jury deliberated for five days before it convicted Thomas and sentenced him to death. After the California Supreme Court upheld the verdict, Thomas contended in post-conviction proceedings that Chaffee had failed to properly represent him by failing to investigate and locate other witnesses who might have supported Cercy’s claim that the blond man had committed the crimes.
A referee was appointed and oversaw a hearing at which Chaffee conceded he had done no investigation, and had not used the investigative resources of the Alameda County public defender that were available to him. Eleven witnesses, mostly members of the Grateful Dead fan community, came forward. None had seen the killing. But one said Cercy told her at the time what she had seen — in contrast to the state version that it was a belated story. And several recited statements made soon after the murder by Bo, whom they identified as James Bowen, that implicated him.
A referee conducted a hearing and concluded the potential witnesses would not have changed the outcome, since they could not have been located, were not credible or lacked first-hand knowledge.
The state Supreme Court concluded Thomas’s attorney had not properly investigated, but, relying on the referee’s report, concluded Thomas had failed to show the investigation might have led to a different result.
In a sharply worded-dissent, Justice Joyce L. Kennard wrote, “Defense counsel, a deputy public defender, made no reasonable efforts to locate potential witnesses to corroborate [Cercy’s] testimony: Refusing the assistance of the public defender’s highly experienced staff of investigators, he insisted on undertaking the task himself, but his own feeble efforts were utterly inadequate.”
Kennard noted the jury was out five days before convicting Thomas, and wrote, “Had defendant’s trial attorney called the witnesses who later testified at the evidentiary hearing, his claim that James Bowen rather than petitioner committed the murders would have been greatly strengthened, and the jury might well have concluded there was a reasonable doubt about defendant’s guilt and declined to convict him of the capital murders.”
Thomas then sought federal relief. In 2009, U.S. District Court Judge Marilyn Hall Patel rejected the California Supreme Court decision, saying repeatedly that the court’s conclusions the testimony would not have made a likely difference “is not supported by the record.”
She concluded that had Thomas’s attorney “conducted a competent investigation, confirmed Bo’s existence and presented corroborating evidence of Cercy’s testimony, there is a reasonable probability that at least some jurors would have harbored reasonable doubt with respect to petitioner’s guilt. His failure to do so undermines confidence in the outcome of his trial.”
By the time Patel ordered the new trial, Thomas was in failing health, having suffered a series of strokes and seizures while in prison. More than two years later, when a divided Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld her conclusion that “there is a reasonable probability the jury would have acquitted,” Thomas’s health had deteriorated further.
Following the federal court order, the state did not drop charges, but instead prepared to retry the case. But Thomas’s mental health rendered him incompetent. He was transferred to a state mental health facility, where he died in January 2014.
That left his legal status in limbo. After his death. the local paper published an article based on the beliefs of the mother of Gioia, one of the two victims. “Woman finds relief in death of daughter’s killer,” the headline asserted.