Crime, Fire + Courts

Judge says jury can view portions of Hirschfield suicide note

By From page A1 | January 24, 2012

SACRAMENTO — A Sacramento jury will hear some — but not all — of a suicide note that authorities say revolves around the 1980 murders of a UC Davis couple.

“I have been living with this horror for 20 years,” Joseph Hirschfield, the brother of accused killer Richard Hirschfield, wrote before committing suicide in 2002 — a day after Sacramento sheriff’s detectives informed him that a cold-case DNA hit linked his brother to the kidnap-murders of John Riggins and Sabrina Gonsalves.

That phrase can be admitted at trial, along with the words, “I was there” and “my DNA is there,” Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael Sweet ruled Monday.

What the jury won’t hear: “Richard did commit those murders” and, “I am still just as guilty and the cops are looking for the second person involved and it won’t take long for them to be back.”

“There’s no doubt in my mind he’s referring to the crimes in this case,” Sweet said after hearing attorney arguments on the issue of declarations against social interest — a lesser-known part of the state evidence code that pertains to statements made by a person who can’t be confronted in court.

The code provides a hearsay exception if “the statement, when made … created such a risk of making him an object of hatred, ridicule or social disgrace in the community, that a reasonable man in his position would not have made the statement unless he believed it to be true.”

Prosecuting attorney Dawn Bladet argued that the social-interest exception allowed for the admission of the note in its entirety, while defense lawyers said it amounted to inadmissible hearsay and should be kept out when the potential death-penalty case goes to trial this spring.

At one point Monday, lead defense attorney Linda Parisi claimed Joseph Hirschfield admitted involvement in the murders so that investigators wouldn’t find out he had molested his own daughter years earlier — a theory that Bladet dismissed as “nonsensical.”

The double homicide, Bladet said, “is much more egregious than any kind of molest crime.”

That Joseph Hirschfield killed himself because he believed DNA also would connect him to the murders “seems clear to me,” Sweet said in his ruling. But the note’s lack of detail about his alleged role makes the statement in its entirety less reliable and trustworthy, he added.

Sweet’s decision to admit portions of the note aligns with a similar ruling made by the judge who presided over Hirschfield’s preliminary hearing in 2007.

“We’re very disappointed,” Parisi said as she left the courtroom Monday. “The law is quite clear — when the statement is self-serving, it should not be admitted.”

Bladet declined to comment on the decision.

Sweet’s next big ruling in the case is slated for next month, when he’ll decide how much of the so-called “third-party culpability” evidence will be allowed into Hirschfield’s trial.

Defense lawyers plan to argue that it was another group of suspects who committed the Riggins-Gonsalves murders. David Hunt, Suellen Hunt, Richard Thompson and Doug Lainer were prosecuted in Yolo County before the case fell apart on the eve of their 1993 trial.

The theory then was that David Hunt, the half-brother of serial killer Gerald Gallego, orchestrated the killings while Gallego was in custody for a similar crime to make authorities believe the real suspect was still at large.

But the DNA found on a semen-stained blanket in Riggins’ van didn’t match Riggins or any of the three male defendants in that case.

— Reach Lauren Keene at [email protected] or (530) 747-8048. Follow her on Twitter @laurenkeene

Lauren Keene

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