SACRAMENTO — The defense rested Monday in the penalty phase of the UC Davis “sweethearts” case, clearing the way for closing arguments in the double-murder trial that began three months ago today.
Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael W. Sweet scheduled the summations for Wednesday, after which jurors will decide whether Richard Joseph Hirschfield should receive the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole for the Dec. 20, 1980, kidnap-murders of UCD students John Riggins and Sabrina Gonsalves.
Defense attorneys called as the case’s final witness Leslie Lebowitz, a Newton, Mass.-based clinical psychologist who testified that Hirschfield’s early childhood amounted to an “atmosphere of terror” that may have influenced his later development.
Lebowitz said she based her opinion on reports of interviews with three of Hirschfield’s relatives — his mother, youngest brother and now-deceased grandmother — who described an abusive environment created by Hirschfield’s biological father.
Casper Hirschfield was married to Richard Hirschfield’s grandmother when he began sexually assaulting his 13-year-old stepdaughter, Lebowitz said. She became pregnant the following year and had Richard — the first of her six children by Casper, whom she eventually married — at age 15.
“By her description, he was a very frightening man, a heavy drinker and physically quite abusive,” Lebowitz said under questioning by lead defense attorney Linda Parisi, who is seeking to spare her client from execution.
Hirschfield’s mother eventually left the marriage and moved her children to Colusa, where the family lived in poverty — and also in fear of Casper’s return, according to the reports.
“Her youngest son described her as sleeping during the day so she could stay awake all night and watch for him,” Lebowitz said. As a result, Hirschfield’s mother was “terrified and emotionally shut down” when it came to raising her children.
Whether Hirschfield felt traumatized by those experiences remains unclear, however, as Lebowitz did not interview the defendant or receive any information about his perceptions of his childhood, the psychologist said under cross-examination by prosecutor Dawn Bladet. She said she was asked to step in as a witness just last week after another defense expert became unavailable to testify.
“I asked if it was possible to interview other family members, but it was not possible and there was not time,” Lebowitz said. The purpose of her testimony, she said, was to “educate the jury about trauma,” but she noted she was not suggesting that trauma played a role in the 1980 murders.
“I’m not speaking to the crime in any way,” she said.
Hirschfield, 63, was convicted Nov. 5 of murdering Riggins and Gonsalves, who were both 18 when they were abducted from Davis after ushering a performance of the “Davis Children’s Nutcracker.”
Their bodies were found two days later in a wooded ravine off Folsom Boulevard and Aerojet Road in Rancho Cordova. The couple’s heads had been wrapped in duct tape, their throats brutally slashed. Gonsalves had been sexually assaulted.
DNA extracted from a semen-stained blanket found in Riggins’ van, which had been used in the kidnapping, led to Hirschfield’s arrest nearly 24 years after the murders.
— Reach Lauren Keene at [email protected] or 530-747-8048. Follow her on Twitter @laurenkeene