SACRAMENTO — Does convicted killer Richard Joseph Hirschfield’s unfortunate past warrant him a lifetime in prison, or should society impose the same fate he gave his two young victims nearly 32 years ago?
Those were the dueling questions posed to a Sacramento County jury Wednesday during closing arguments in the penalty-phase proceedings for Richard Joseph Hirschfield, the man convicted last month of the Dec. 20, 1980, kidnap-slayings of UC Davis sweethearts John Riggins and Sabrina Gonsalves.
“He chose death over life for John and Sabrina. … He chose to kill in a vicious, savage and cruel way,” Deputy District Attorney Dawn Bladet told the jurors who last month found Hirschfield guilty of two counts of first-degree murder, along with three special circumstances — kidnapping, oral copulation and multiple murders — that qualify Hirschfield for either the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole.
“Did he give them any mercy? Leniency? No. He acted as judge, jury and executioner,” Bladet said. For that, she said, “he deserves the ultimate punishment.”
But Hirschfield’s lawyers asked the jury to show that mercy now for their client, whose childhood, they say, was that of a poor, social misfit who suffered “extreme abuse” from his father as a child, as well as brain damage that put him at risk for antisocial behavior and diminished impulse control.
“This is the time to punish, but it’s time for the killing to stop,” defense attorney Linda Parisi said. “This is not a time to kill. Justice is not served by that.”
Jurors received the case at 3:30 p.m. and were expected to deliberate for about an hour before leaving the courthouse for the day. Their deliberations resumed this morning.
Wednesday’s closing remarks took place in a courtroom filled with the victims’ friends and relatives, who concede that even if Hirschfield is sentenced to death, it’s unlikely he’ll ever see execution given his age — 63 — coupled with the lengthy appeal process for California’s death-row inmates.
Still, “we have a responsibility to protect society, and the death penalty as a deterrent is important,” Andrea Gonsalves Rosenstein, Sabrina’s sister, said in an interview following the arguments. “It will send a message that we will not tolerate strangers kidnapping our children, murdering our children, without paying the ultimate price.”
Riggins and Gonsalves were both 18 when they were abducted from Davis five days before Christmas. The teens, who worked as youth recreation leaders in addition to their UCD studies, had just ushered a performance of the “Davis Children’s Nutcracker.”
Their bodies were found two days later in a Folsom-area ravine, their throats slashed and heads wrapped in duct tape. Gonsalves had been sexually assaulted, and DNA from a semen-stained blanket led to Hirschfield’s arrest in 2004, more than two decades after the crime.
By then, he was serving prison time for a pair of 1996 child molestations, which Bladet urged the jury to consider — along with his 1975 conviction for a Mountain View rape and the 1980s molest of a niece that was never reported to police — as aggravating factors as they determine Hirschfield’s sentence.
“Nothing will stop him. He has shown that,” Bladet said. “He takes anyone, any age, and will use them for his perverse pleasure no matter what harm he does.”
Bladet also urged the jury to recall the testimony of the victims’ families, who last week took the witness stand to describe the teens’ accomplishments during the 18 years they lived, along with the devastation wrought by their horrific deaths.
Remember Kate Riggins, John’s mother, who has relived the horror of her son’s murder every night for the past three decades, Bladet said. She quoted Sabrina’s mother, Kim Gonsalves, who testified that her youngest daughter’s death “ripped my heart out” and made her wish for her own demise.
And think of the victims, whose final moments in life included being bound, choked, bludgeoned and sexually assaulted before being discarded “like trash” into the secluded ravine to die, the prosecutor said.
Hirschfield’s childhood trauma, she added, does nothing to lessen the gravity of the crime.
“He took everything before he took their lives, showing no mercy or compassion or remorse,” Bladet said. “The death penalty in California would be virtually meaningless if it didn’t apply to this defendant and these crimes.”
Regardless of the jury’s decision, “your (guilt) verdict has guaranteed that Mr. Hirschfield will die in prison,” Parisi said in her closing argument. She objected to Bladet’s characterization of life imprisonment as the lesser of the two choices.
“Life without the possibility of parole is not walking through the park. … It’s living in a cell being told when to get up, what you can eat, when you can eat it,” Parisi said. “There is nothing lenient. It is harsh.”
Parisi said Hirschfield’s life was shaped by not only his own misfortunes but those of his mother, whose abusive stepfather sexually assaulted her, then married her after she became pregnant at age 14.
The abuse — “a reign of terror,” Parisi called it — continued until the mother fled with her six children into a life of poverty in rural Colusa, where Hirschfield had to find work at an early age to help support his family, the defense attorney said. At school, he was bullied and ostracized.
“Mr. Hirschfield didn’t choose any one of these events,” Parisi said. “Did it have an impact? Of course. If it were a movie, it would be rated R.”
As for the prior rape and molests, while traumatic for the victims, “there is no gratuitous violence beyond which was necessary to commit the offense,” Assistant Public Defender Ken Schaller said in his portion of the closing remarks.
“I submit to you that he did do a horrendous act,” Schaller added. But as the jury makes what he called the “Mount Everest” of decisions, “for yourselves, for the community, and quite honestly for the families of the victims, the most just decision is to affirm life.”
— Reach Lauren Keene at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-747-8048. Follow her on Twitter @laurenkeene