Wednesday, April 16, 2014
YOLO COUNTY NEWS
99 CENTS

Justice waits no longer

Richard Joseph Hirschfield speaks to defense attorney Linda Parisi after his death sentence was read Thursday at the Sacramento Superior Courthouse. Fred Gladdis/Enterrprise photo

By
From page A1 | December 07, 2012 | Leave Comment

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.

Family reacts

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.”

Appeal planned

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 lkeene@davisenterprise.net or 530-747-8048. Follow her on Twitter at @laurenkeene

LEAVE A COMMENT

Discussion | No comments

The Davis Enterprise does not necessarily condone the comments here, nor does it review every post. Read our full policy

  • Recent Posts

  • Enter your email address to subscribe to this newspaper and receive notifications of new articles by email.

  • .

    News

     
    ‘Eco-Heroes’ help get us from here to there

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A1, 2 Comments | Gallery

     
    CHP seeks owner of lost cash

    By Lauren Keene | From Page: A2

     
     
    Home building up in March after frigid winter

    By The Associated Press | From Page: A2

    Davis elder-abuse case wraps up

    By Lauren Keene | From Page: A2

     
    Alleged serial killings highlight GPS limits

    By The Associated Press | From Page: A2

    Local professor subdues unruly man on flight

    By Adrian Glass-Moore | From Page: A3, 1 Comment

     
    Family fiction in miniature showcased at bookstore event

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A3 | Gallery

    Meditation, Buddhism classes offered

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

     
    Seniors can get tips for getting around town

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

    School has garden plots for rent

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

     
    Sugar overload, on ‘Davisville’

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

    Rotarians, students, teachers, parents collaborate on planter boxes

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4 | Gallery

     
    Yolo Crisis Nursery is in crisis; please help

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A4

    Check out the night sky

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A5 | Gallery

     
    Hop to it: Easter Bunny meets Davis history tour

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A5

    Garden doctor: Veggie gardening available year-round

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A5

     
    Animal expert explains dogs’ thinking

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A5

    Central Park Gardens to host Volunteer Orientation Day

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A7 | Gallery

     
     
    .

    Forum

    Still supporting this guy

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: B5

     
    Urban forest under siege

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A6, 5 Comments

    Drought care for our trees

    By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A6, 1 Comment

     
    Tom Meyer cartoon

    By Debbie Davis | From Page: A6

    .

    Sports

    UCD staff allows 19 hits in Causeway rout

    By Bruce Gallaudet | From Page: B1 | Gallery

     
    DHS softball struggles in nonleague outing

    By Spencer Ault | From Page: B1 | Gallery

    Devils open Boras Classic by splitting games

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: B1 | Gallery

     
     
    JV/frosh roundup: DHS sweeps a trio of baseball games

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: B2 | Gallery

    Baseball roundup: River Cats get by Grizzlies at Raley

    By The Associated Press | From Page: B3

     
    Giants beat L.A. in 12

    By The Associated Press | From Page: B3

    Sports briefs: Stanford sends Aggies home with a lacrosse loss

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: B8 | Gallery

     
    .

    Features

     
    .

    Arts

    Craft Center exhibit explores ‘Possibilities’

    By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A9

     
    RootStock to host wine themed plein aire exhibit

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A9

    The California Honeydrops to bring danceable groove to The Palms

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A9 | Gallery

     
    See Flower Power exhibit at Gallery 625

    By Enterprise staff | From Page: A9 | Gallery

    Red Union Blue inks record deal

    By Landon Christensen | From Page: A9 | Gallery

     
    .

    Business

    .

    Obituaries

    .

    Comics

    Comics: Wednesday, April 16, 2014

    By Creator | From Page: B6