SACRAMENTO — None of it makes sense, the defense attorney said.
If Richard Joseph Hirschfield kidnapped UC Davis students John Riggins and Sabrina Gonsalves with the goal of getting away with murder, why take them from the relative obscurity of Davis to the heavily populated Sacramento area?
If he wanted to escape scot-free, why abandon Riggins’ van on a well-traveled road within clear view of busy Highway 50? And why make no effort to hide the throat-slashed bodies in a Folsom-area ravine that, according to one law-enforcement officer, was known as a hotbed for criminal activity?
“Why would you expose yourself to greater risk of detection for no reason, no benefit?” attorney Linda Parisi said Thursday during the second day of closing arguments in what has been dubbed the “sweethearts” murder case.
The defense’s closing remarks lasted nearly four hours Thursday, and continued today, as Hirschfield’s trio of lawyers try to debunk the prosecution’s portrayal of Hirschfield as a sexual deviant whose tendencies escalated to cold, calculated murder on the foggy night of Dec. 20, 1980.
It was an unimaginable crime, one capable of arousing a great deal of fear — but that should not be used as a basis to convict Hirschfield, Parisi told the seven-man, five-woman jury. Rather, she asked the panel to consider the motive of someone else: David Hunt, the career criminal who along with three cohorts who were unsuccessfully prosecuted for the killings in Yolo County more than 20 years ago.
“He did it for his (half) brother, Gerald Gallego,” Parisi said, referring to the notorious serial killer who was in jail for a similar crime in Sacramento at the time of the Riggins-Gonsalves murders
Yolo prosecutors alleged Hunt carried out a copycat crime, but that theory remained off limits to the jury during Thursday’s arguments under a pretrial ruling by Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael Sweet. However, the defense continued to embrace the third-party premise, saying only that the slain couple were believed to be “witnesses” against Gallego.
“These are people with a motive and a connection and a reason to commit this crime,” Parisi said of the Hunt group. “If you do it so well you don’t get found out, you don’t accomplish your goal.”
The defense contends Riggins and Gonsalves were abducted not from outside Gonsalves’ apartment on Alta Loma Street, but rather from what was then the Lucky shopping center on Covell Boulevard as they purchased ice cream for a surprise birthday party. Witnesses there reported seeing two suspicious-looking men whose descriptions aligned more with members of the Hunt group than with Hirschfield, his lawyers said.
A strand of hair consistent with that of David Hunt found on Riggins’ sweater at the murder scene is among the circumstantial evidence “that points toward innocence,” Assistant Public Defender Ken Schaller said.
Then there’s Ray Gonzales, the criminal-turned-police informant who in the late 1980s helped Davis police Lt. Fred Turner build his case against the Hunt group. He claimed to have elicited a taped confession from Hunt group member Richard Thompson, along with a reference to “a whole lot of (expletive) duct tape” — the same material that had been used to bind the UCD couple.
“The (audio) tape was garbled, but there are some admissions,” Schaller said. “Why would somebody admit to a murder if they didn’t do it?”
The defense also spent considerable time attacking the prosecution’s DNA evidence, which hailed from a semen-stained blanket found in Riggins’ van about a mile from the body-dump site. It cleared the Hunt group in 1993 and fingered Hirschfield as a suspect nearly a decade later, with 1-in-240 trillion odds of a random match.
Assistant Public Defender David Lynch, the defense’s expert in DNA matters, dismissed the genetic findings as “biased,” having come from pro-prosecution crime lab workers who he said failed to include possible exculpatory or inconclusive results in their reports.
Besides, he added, the results fail to prove when, where or how the DNA came to be on the blanket, which was handled by officers as they searched for clues about the missing teens before their bodies were found. It also spent years being stored in tattered packaging, and could have been commingled with and contaminated by other evidence in the case, Lynch said.
He suggested that was how several of the blanket stains came to show mixtures of Hirschfield’s and Gonsalves’ DNA, leading authorities to believe Gonsalves was the victim of sexual assault — an allegation the defense denies.
“There’s plenty of places that DNA could have come from,” Lynch told the jury. “This blanket in no way relates to the killing — or even to the kidnapping.”
Parisi later offered another possible explanation for the DNA’s presence: the accessibility of Riggins’ abandoned van in the hours between the Saturday-night killings and its discovery by law enforcement the following Monday morning.
It was found parked and locked on Folsom Boulevard, the keys still inside, but that may not have been the case the entire weekend, Parisi said. She cited the testimony of now-deceased witness Katherine LeBas, who claimed to have seen a blond-haired, blue-eyed man driving the van on Watt Avenue the day after the murders.
“What it shows is that people … may have been in that van, had access to the blanket, and had not one thing to do with the crime,” Parisi said. “Is it possible that was a night that Mr. Hirschfield was in that location?”
As of Thursday, the defense had yet to discuss Joseph Hirschfield, the defendant’s younger brother who lived and worked a few miles from the crime scene in 1980. He took his own life after Sacramento investigators questioned him about the murders in 2002, leaving behind a suicide note that said in part, “I was there. My DNA is there.”
A rebuttal argument by Deputy District Attorney Dawn Bladet will follow the defense’s closing remarks today, after which the potential death-penalty case is expected to be handed to the jury.
— Reach Lauren Keene at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-747-8048. Follow her on Twitter @laurenkeene.