Monday, March 06, 2006

In Re Ralph Thomas (Cal. Supreme Ct. - March 6, 2006)

So sad. The Grateful Dead was formed way back in 1965 (anyone remember "Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions"?) and performed for three full decades, until Jerry's death in 1995. During the entirety of those thirty years, notwithstanding their great fame and popularity in our Great State of California, the only time the California Supreme Court mentioned either the Dead or their deadicated (!) fans was in a 1995 opinion in which the defendant was convicted of possessing LSD (People v. Palaschak). And the California Supreme Court reversed the conviction; and did so unanimously, at that. Probably something that the Grateful Dead (and their fans) would appreciate. In any event, it was a passing reference, and merely referred to the place where the defendant (allegedly) scored his acid, at a house "occupied by ostensible fans of the Grateful Dead rock group." (emphasis added)

But then Jerry dies. And now, in this case, the California Supreme Court makes its only direct reference to the band, does so in the very first sentence of the opinion, and -- for the first time ever in reported jurisprudence in a California appellate tribunal -- refers to "Deadheads".

Sadly, the reference is in connection with a case of first-degree murder, and in which the defendant was (and is) sentenced to death. Here are the first several sentences of the opinion: "Mary Gioia and Greg Kniffin were “Deadheads,” followers of the band the Grateful Dead, who in 1985 traveled with other Deadheads to Berkeley, California, to see one of the band’s shows. When they arrived, they stayed in Rainbow Village, a permanent encampment of homeless people on the shores of San Francisco Bay. Sometime during the night of August 15-16, 1985, they were both shot and killed. Petitioner Ralph International Thomas, a resident of Rainbow Village, was convicted of second degree murder and first degree murder with special circumstances and sentenced to death for the killings of Gioia and Kniffin."

So an express reference to the band and to Deadheads. But a sad one. And includes a set of facts that don't exactly make being a Deadhead sound like a uniformly positive experience, at least for a certain category of fans.

It's a death penalty case. In the California Supreme Court. So you can guess how it probably comes out. Let's just say the defendant doesn't exactly get relief.

Sure, it's not unanimous, which is pretty unusual; here, Justice Kennard would grant the habeas petition. But everyone else disagrees.

P.S. - Don't get me wrong. Sometimes the California Supreme Court reverses a death sentence. For example, in this case -- People v. Strum -- which was also (like Thomas) issued earlier today. But you should definitely read the opinion in Strum to see what it takes to obtain a reversal. The trial judge in that case -- Judge Donald McCartin of Orange County -- was pretty much out of control; belittling defense counsel, telling the jury (on multiple occasions) that the case was a "gimmie", and being utterly partisan. Wow. Not impressive.

Lesson for the day (listen up, Judge McCartin): Especially when you're trying a death penalty case, please try to be neutral. Oh, yeah, also. Don't try to be funny, either. It's not a laughing matter. And your jokes weren't funny anyway.