SACRAMENTO — For the last time, the family and friends of John Riggins and Sabrina Gonsalves gathered in Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael Sweet’s courtroom on Friday to witness the final chapter of one of Davis’ greatest tragedies.
Joining them were many of the jurors who sat through Richard Joseph Hirschfield’s three-month trial last fall, who found him guilty of savagely killing the 18-year-old UC Davis sweethearts, and who agreed his punishment should be death.
Hirschfield’s defense attorneys put up one more fight, filing thick motions for a new trial, to dismiss the special circumstances that made their client eligible for the death penalty, and to modify his sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Denied. Denied. Denied.
Calling the defendant’s crimes “so horrendous, so evil,” Sweet said death is the “just and appropriate punishment” to impose on Hirschfield for the Dec. 20, 1980, kidnap-murders.
In a voice that fluctuated with emotion at times during his nine-minute ruling, Sweet said Hirschfield acted willfully and with premeditation when he abducted Riggins and Gonsalves from Davis on that foggy night just before Christmas, wrapped their heads in duct tape, and slit their throats before dumping their bodies in a remote, wooded ravine off Highway 50 in Rancho Cordova. Searchers found their bodies two days later.
Sweet noted the bludgeoning injuries to Riggins’ head and the sexual assault committed on Gonsalves, which ultimately led to Hirschfield’s arrest after authorities discovered DNA on a semen-stained blanket in Riggins’ van. Criminalists said the genetic material pointed to Hirschfield with 1-in-240-trillion odds.
“These killings involved great violence and displayed a high degree of cruelty, viciousness and callous disregard for human life,” Sweet said. Other factors he considered, he said, were the devastating effects of the murders on the teens’ families and the Davis community, as well as Hirschfield’s past convictions for forcible rape and child molestation.
Defense claims that Hirschfield’s conduct was influenced by brain damage and a troubled childhood were “not persuasive,” Sweet said.
Hirschfield’s lawyers had argued during the trial that it was another group of suspects — the so-called “Hunt group” prosecuted in Yolo County more than 20 years ago — that were behind the murders. The case fell apart in 1993 when the newly discovered DNA evidence excluded them as contributors.
The case languished for nearly 10 more years until a book about the murders, written by former Davis Enterprise reporter Joel Davis, renewed Sacramento authorities’ interest in the case and led to a cold-hit DNA match in 2002. Hirschfield was charged with the murders in 2004.
Following his conviction, more than 20 people submitted letters to the court describing the widespread impacts of Riggins’ and Gonsalves’ deaths, and Sweet heard testimony from nine of them Friday before handing down Hirschfield’s sentence.
Parents, siblings and other relatives spoke of the love and companionship ripped from their lives over the past three decades, and the contributions the couple would have made, both to their families and society, had they lived. They also demanded the ultimate punishment for Hirschfield — though a few of them refused to utter his name — and expressed satisfaction he would live out his days in death-row isolation.
Hirschfield, 64, wearing an orange jail-issued uniform, sat impassively throughout the 2 1/2-hour proceeding, watching the victims’ relatives as they spoke. He offered no statement of his own.
After signing the warrant that will send Hirschfield to San Quentin State Prison’s death row, Sweet personally addressed the Riggins and Gonsalves families, who along with dozens of their friends attended more than eight years of court hearings before the case finally went to trial.
“Your lives changed permanently, in the worst possible way, on that December day in 1980, and you have endured so much,” Sweet said. “The tortured history of this case must have taken away any hope you had that the person responsible for these acts would be discovered and held to answer.
“Hopefully, with the jury’s verdict in this case, they have provided some measure of closure and comfort, and that justice in some small way has and will be served,” Sweet added. He offered “my sincere and deep-felt apologies for the tragedies you have suffered.”
The families, who met privately with Sweet after the hearing, said they were touched by his words.
“Now I feel like it really is over,” said Andrea Gonsalves Rosenstein, Sabrina’s sister and onetime roommate, who was the first to discover the couple missing 32 years ago. “The whole family is ready to move on, to put this behind us, and to just miss Sabrina.”
As the case proceeds to an automatic appeal, Dick Riggins, John’s father, offered stern words for Hirschfield’s defense team after the sentencing.
“I think its time for the defense to quit playing games and quit obstructing justice,” he said. “I cannot believe those intelligent people who worked on his defense could want Richard Hirschfield living free in the community with their daughters and their granddaughters. It’s time to quit and get on with the execution.”
— Reach Lauren Keene at email@example.com or 530-747-8048. Follow her on Twitter @laurenkeene