Supreme Contentment?

It doesn’t get much better than not getting a single question while arguing before the California Supreme Court: That’s a good sign you’ve probably won your case.

So it went Tuesday for San Francisco Senior Assistant Attorney General Dane Gillette while arguing to retain the death penalty for a man convicted of the 1985 murders of two people in a Berkeley camp-ground for the homeless.

Gillette, the state’s capital case coordinator, laid out his case for more than 25 minutes without interruption. Admittedly, Justice Joyce Kennard, the court’s most active questioner wasn’t on hand for the Los Angeles arguments, but it still was unusual for five permanent justices and one pro tem to remain absolutely silent.

It might have been even more telling, though, that Gillette’s opponent, Alexander Reisman, a partner in San Francisco’s Bourdon & Reisman, was questioned by only two justices — Ming Chin and Kathryn Mickle Werdegar — and sparingly at that.

All of the justices appeared quite content with a judicial referee’s 2003 report that death-row inmate Ralph International Thomas had gotten a fair trial, despite allegations that his trial court lawyer didn’t follow leads that would have bolstered his claims of innocence.

Thomas was convicted of killing Mary Gioia, 22, and Greg Kniffen, 18, on Aug. 16, 1985. Both victims — Deadheads following a tour of the Grateful Dead — were beaten and shot near the Rainbow Village compound in Berkeley.

The California Supreme Court affirmed Thomas’ death sentence in 1992, but issued an order in 2001 seeking more information on the possibility that Alameda County Deputy Public Defender James Chaffee hadn’t followed leads that might have fingered another man in the homeless encampment as the real killer.

Alameda County Superior Court Judge Philip Sarkisian presided over a subsequent hearing and found no reason to overturn Thomas’ death sentence.

Reisman’s arguments that the referee ignored substantial evidence fell mostly on deaf ears on Wednesday. So did his litany of testimony by fellow Deadheads and other campers who he and investigators tracked down almost two decades after the murders.

“These were nomads,? he told the court, “but predictable nomads. You just needed the Grateful Dead’s tour schedule.?
Gillette’s spirited deconstruction of Reisman’s argument was met with respectful attentiveness by some justices. Others shuffled papers and appeared to be doing other work.

— Mike McKee
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