SACRAMENTO — The swiftness of Thursday’s verdicts surprised nearly everyone, coming just 2 1/2 hours after jurors began deliberating whether to bestow the death penalty or life in prison without parole upon convicted killer Richard Joseph Hirschfield.
But after spending three months listening to evidence in the case — some of it graphic and all of it sad — the seven-man, five-woman jury had heard all it needed to hear. And they decided that Hirschfield deserved no mercy for the brutal Dec. 20, 1980, kidnap-murders of UC Davis sweethearts John Riggins and Sabrina Gonsalves.
“None of the decisions were easy. We had a lot of emotions in the deliberation room,” jury foreman Glenn Oliveira said later. “In the end, as individuals, we all came to our own conclusion, and it was unanimous.”
Relatives of the slain couple, who sat tensely in the courtroom as the jury filed in around 2:30 p.m., wept and clutched one another’s hands as a Sacramento Superior Court clerk read the panel’s two death verdicts: one for Riggins’ murder, the other for Gonsalves’.
As they filed out of court a few minutes later, several of the jurors exchanged smiles with the victims’ families and friends. One paused to reach out to Dick Riggins, John’s father.
“It was a pleasure to shake that person’s hand,” Riggins, his wife Kate at his side, told reporters in the court hallway a few minutes later. “We owe this jury so much. …We owe a lot to everyone that’s been involved.”
Hirschfield, 63, showed no apparent reaction to the jury’s sentencing recommendation. The clerk polled the jurors, and Hirschfield turned in his seat to gaze at them as each affirmed the verdicts were correct as read.
Judge Michael W. Sweet scheduled Hirschfield’s sentencing hearing for Jan. 25, at which time he’ll also hear a defense bid to modify the sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Sweet asked Hirschfield whether he waived his right to a speedier disposition.
“That’s fine,” Hirschfield replied, one of the few times he’s spoken aloud in the courtroom in the past eight years.
The verdicts bring a near-end to the case that began 32 years ago this month with the abductions of Riggins and Gonsalves, both 18-year-old UCD freshmen, on a foggy night five days before Christmas — a crime that shook Davis to its core and changed the way many parents watched over their children.
The couple, who were also youth recreation leaders, had just come from ushering a performance of “The Davis Children’s Nutcracker.” Their bodies were found two days later in a Folsom-area ravine, their heads wrapped in duct tape, their throats viciously slashed.
Hirschfield was convicted of the murders Nov. 5, along with three special circumstances — multiple murders, kidnapping and oral copulation, which prosecutors say he forced Gonsalves to perform — that sent the trial into the three-day penalty phase.
The victims’ families realize that Hirschfield may never see execution, given his age and the lengthy appellate process. But they say death is the appropriate penalty nonetheless, given Hirschfield’s criminal history that included rape and child molestations in addition to the 1980 murders.
“He took the lives of two wonderful people, and if he spends the rest of his life with the stigma and the isolation of death row, that’s good enough,” said Andrea Gonsalves Rosenstein, Sabrina’s sister. “If that’s the best justice that California can offer, we’ll take it.”
Kim Gonsalves, Sabrina’s mother, said she’s relieved to see the ordeal come to an end.
“I don’t know if it’s what they call closure, because we still have to live with their deaths,” Gonsalves said in a phone interview Thursday from her Hawaii home. “But I don’t have to worry about him anymore. He’s taken care of.”
Thursday marked the first time the families were able to reach out to the jury, who for months were admonished to avoid talking or reading about the case. Several jurors made their way to the courthouse’s first floor, where the victims’ relatives greeted them with handshakes and hugs.
Oliveira, the foreman, said Hirschfield “got exactly what he deserves.” He described Hirschfield’s lack of emotion and remorse during the three-month trial as “disturbing.”
“I think he’s somebody that has always, at least part of his life, tried to put fear into people,” said Oliveria, 39. “His reign of terror, his reign of fear over people, it’s over.”
Oliveira said the panel was swayed largely by the case’s DNA evidence, extracted from a semen-stained blanket that one prosecution expert said matched Hirschfield’s genetic profile with 1-in-240-trillion odds. The 2002 suicide of Hirschfield’s younger brother, who penned a note placing himself at the murder scene, served as strong corroboration, he added.
Less compelling, Oliveira said, was the mitigating evidence offered by the defense, who said Hirschfield was the product of an abusive, “chaotic” childhood and suffered from brain abnormalities that may have affected his behavior as he grew to adulthood.
“A lot of children have tough childhoods. A lot of children choose the wrong path, and other children rise above it,” Oliveira said. However, “I think the defense did the best they could with what they had.”
Hirschfield’s attorneys had defended their client by reviving evidence that a third party — the so-called “Hunt group” — had committed the Riggins-Gonsalves murders. The group had been prosecuted in Yolo County until the newly discovered DNA evidence, which matched none of the three male defendants, unraveled the case in 1993.
Linda Parisi, Hirschfield’s lead defense attorney, has said pre-trial rulings prohibited her from presenting crucial aspects of the Hunt defense to the jury, and she reaffirmed Thursday her plans for an appeal of the guilt verdict.
She also expressed disappointment in the penalty decision, as well as the time it took to reach it.
“I find it amazing, in light of the fact it is such a serious decision that took so little discussion,” Parisi said. “It really is such a serious decision whether a person lives or dies, regardless of the circumstances.”
Deputy District Attorney Dawn Bladet, the case’s prosecutor, declined to comment until after Hirschfield’s sentencing hearing.
But the victims’ families praised her, along with the Sacramento County sheriff’s investigators who worked the case since a cold-hit DNA match put Hirschfield on their radar a decade ago.
They also lauded Joel Davis, a Davis High School graduate and former Davis Enterprise reporter whose book about the killings, “Justice Waits: The UC Davis Sweetheart Murders,” rekindled authorities’ interest in the case.
“It’s probably the kingpin that got this thing going again,” Dick Riggins said. “I had long given up that we would ever reach this stage.”
Davis, who was in court for Thursday’s verdicts, said he was “very relieved for the Riggins and Gonsalves families.”
“It’s good to see them smiling again,” he said.
— Reach Lauren Keene at [email protected] or 530-747-8048. Follow her on Twitter at @laurenkeene