SACRAMENTO — A Sacramento Superior Court judge has largely shot down defense attorneys’ attempt to blame the 1980 UC Davis “sweetheart” murders on four other suspects whose own case fell apart nearly 20 years ago.
Allowing lawyers for defendant Richard Hirschfield to introduce much of that evidence at trial would create “a substantial danger of confusing the issues and misleading the jury,” Judge Michael Sweet said in court Wednesday as Dick and Kate Riggins, the parents of murder victim John Riggins, listened from the audience.
His decision dealt a swift blow to the defense theory that the so-called “Hunt group” — David Hunt, his wife Suellen Hunt, Richard Thompson and Doug Lainer — kidnapped and killed Riggins and his girlfriend Sabrina Gonsalves as part of a copycat crime.
Hirschfield’s lawyers say the Hunt group carried out the killings to draw suspicion away from David Hunt’s half-brother, serial killer Gerald Gallego, who at the time was in jail for the November 1980 abductions and murders of Sacramento State University couple Craig Miller and Mary Beth Sowers.
That same theory led Yolo County authorities to file charges against the Hunt group in the late 1980s, but the case collapsed in 1993 when DNA from a semen-stained blanket in Riggins’ van failed to match Riggins or any of the three male defendants.
A cold-hit DNA match linked Hirschfield to the case in 2002. He has pleaded not guilty to the double homicide.
In his ruling, Sweet noted that while both crimes involved kidnappings of college couples, there also were significant differences — including the fact that Sowers and Miller were shot, while Riggins and Gonsalves had their throats slashed. Sowers also suffered through hours of sexual assault prior to her death.
“The superficial similarities between the two crimes simply do not support the inference that David Hunt, or anyone else, was trying to commit a copycat murder,” Sweet said.
The judge also dismissed defense arguments that the Hunt group’s actions around the time of the students’ murders — including Thompson’s prison breakout, a nine-state robbery spree, and the Hunts’ alleged alibi-creating wedding in Carson City, Nev., on the afternoon of the Dec. 20, 1980, murders — also made them viable suspects in the case.
“These inferences are so highly speculative that they are of minimal probative value,” Sweet said.
The defense is now limited to introducing witness statements and physical evidence that either directly or circumstantially link the Hunt group to the murders.
Sweet said that evidence may include testimony from noted Sacramento criminalist Faye Springer that a hair found on Riggins’ sweater at the crime scene could be a match for David Hunt, as well as out-of-court statements from members of the Hunt group “admitting to their involvement in the crime.”
Linda Parisi, Hirschfield’s lead defense attorney, said her team was “disappointed” in Sweet’s ruling, which she said excludes evidence “that we believe is clearly admissible.”
“To reduce it down to admissions is an unfair restriction,” Parisi said.
But Sweet’s ruling may open the door for Hirschfield’s lawyers to elicit testimony from Ray Gonzales, an ex-con and police informant who helped Davis police Detective Fred Turner build a case against the Hunt group in the late 1980s.
Gonzales claimed that Thompson confessed to his and David Hunt’s roles in the murders in 1987 as the two men swapped stories about their criminal escapades in a Los Angeles bar. Gonzales was wired during the conversation, but background noise from the bar rendered the recording useless.
Turner, now retired, testified during Hirschfield’s 2007 preliminary hearing that he relied upon Gonzales’ recollections of the conversation as he carried out his investigation, despite the informant’s criminal background and the fact that he was David Hunt’s former brother-in-law.
“The prosecution will be able to refute that evidence without much effort,” Dick Riggins said in an interview Wednesday following Sweet’s ruling, which Riggins praised.
“I think the judge has done an extensive amount of work on this case, and we agree with what he said,” Riggins said. “I’m impressed with the amount of effort he’s already put in.”
The next phase of pretrial rulings is expected to focus on Hirschfield’s criminal history — particularly his 1975 conviction for the home-invasion robbery and sexual assault of a Mountain View woman. He was released from a Vacaville prison in July 1980, five months before the Riggins-Gonsalves murders.
Meanwhile, Hirschfield’s lawyers this week filed a motion to delay the case until mid-July to accommodate attorney vacations, though Sweet indicated from the bench that he is determined to “press on” with the nearly eight-year-old case.
“I don’t want to have these breaks. We need to get through this,” Sweet said. “Vacations are secondary, even for myself. This is the priority.”
— Reach Lauren Keene at firstname.lastname@example.org or (530) 747-8048. Follow her on Twitter @laurenkeene