Crime, Fire + Courts

‘Sweethearts’ murder case now in jury’s hands

By From page A1 | November 04, 2012

John Riggins was an 18-year-old UC Davis freshman when he was slain in December 1980. Enterprise file photo

John Riggins was an 18-year-old UC Davis freshman when he was slain in December 1980. Enterprise file photo

SACRAMENTO — After three full days of closing arguments, the UC Davis “sweethearts” double-murder case went to the jury Friday, to the relief of family and friends of the victims who have spent the past 32 years waiting for justice.

“I’m very thankful that this phase of it is over with. It’s been long and it’s been painful, and very hard to live it all over again,” said Dick Riggins, whose son John was kidnapped and slain along with his girlfriend, Sabrina Gonsalves, on Dec. 20, 1980, after the young couple ushered a performance of the “Davis Children’s Nutcracker.”

Their bodies, throats slashed and heads wrapped in duct tape, were found two days later in a Folsom-area ravine. Authorities say Gonsalves was sexually assaulted.

DNA extracted from a semen-stained blanket in Riggins’ van, which was used to abduct the UC Davis students, led authorities to Richard Hirschfield more than two decades after the crime. The 63-year-old defendant, who has pleaded not guilty, faces the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole if convicted.

Although the seven-man, five-woman jury received the case shortly before 4 p.m. Friday, the panel was delayed in starting their deliberations until Monday morning while attorneys in the case sparred over the content of Deputy District Attorney Dawn Bladet’s rebuttal argument.

Defense lawyer Linda Parisi took issue with Bladet’s contention that the so-called “Hunt group” — the four suspects prosecuted in the murders in Yolo County before the newly discovered DNA evidence cleared them in 1993 — had no motive to kill the 18-year-old victims.

There indeed was motive, Parisi argued, but a pretrial ruling strictly limited how much of the Hunt-group theory the defense could present at trial.

“There is a mountain of evidence, and the jury should have heard it in the first place,” Parisi told Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael W. Sweet, requesting either a mistrial or an opportunity to reopen the defense case to present the missing details.

Sweet denied both, saying he found no evidence of misconduct on the prosecutor’s part.

“The defense argued possible theories, and (Bladet is) commenting on those explanations that were proffered by the defense,” he said.

Much of Bladet’s rebuttal focused on the DNA and its 1-in-240 trillion odds that it matched Hirschfield, a statistic that defense lawyers dismissed, saying the evidence could have become contaminated during the many years the case remained unsolved.

At the same time, they offered potential explanations for the presence of Hirschfield’s DNA that didn’t involve rape, saying he may have happened upon the van after it was abandoned on Folsom Boulevard in Rancho Cordova and used it for consensual sex or some other activity that caused his semen to land on the blanket.

Bladet scoffed at the latter theory, questioning the likelihood that a “random masturbator” would leave his genetic material in a vehicle that had just been used to carry out a kidnapping and violent murder.

“What are the odds that he’s the unluckiest sex offender on the face of the planet?” Bladet told the jury. “They’re just throwing things out there, folks, because that’s all they have to work with.”

Dick Riggins said Friday he’s confident that, after hearing all the evidence, the jury will reach a guilty verdict.

“I can’t conceive of the jury coming back with anything (else),” he said. “Anyone who could argue that Hirschfield has not been adequately defended has not sat through this trial. They have leaned over backwards to defend his rights. … But the facts were so obvious, even to a layperson like myself.”

He and his wife, Kate, attended each day of the two-month trial, along with many of their longtime Davis friends. Their two surviving children, Robert and Carrie, joined them for the closing arguments.

Gonsalves’ sister, Andrea Gonsalves Rosenstein, and aunt Ginger Swigart also were in the courtroom for the attorneys’ final remarks. Rosenstein praised Bladet for being concise, yet also compassionate as she spoke of the victims.

“She keeps reminding you that they’re real people, and that this is a horrible thing that happened to them,” she said.

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

Lauren Keene

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