SACRAMENTO — Observers of the upcoming penalty phase of the UC Davis “sweethearts” murder trial are in for testimony both heart-wrenching and disturbing in nature.
On the one hand, there are the relatives and friends of victims John Riggins and Sabrina Gonsalves, who will talk about the teens’ accomplishments in life and the impacts of their gruesome deaths. In statements to prosecutors, they have spoken of suffering profound grief, depression and deteriorating health since the Dec. 20, 1980, kidnap-murders.
On the other is the past of the teenagers’ convicted killer, Richard Joseph Hirschfield, who, according to court papers filed by Deputy District Attorney Dawn Bladet, has demonstrated a steady pattern of offenses including rape, child molestation and other acts of violence, even on members of his own family.
Bladet wants to elicit testimony from a sister, a niece and a former stepson of Hirschfield who all say the defendant sexually assaulted them, and remind the jury of Hirschfield’s convictions for a 1975 rape and a 1996 child molestation, which were introduced during the trial’s guilt phase.
An alleged plot by Hirschfield to kill his ex-girlfriend’s new love interest also should be admitted, along with his possession of bombs and other destructive devices at the time of his rape arrest, Bladet says.
Some of the crimes reportedly are outlined in a 266-page journal kept by Hirschfield that Bladet wants to present to the jury as it considers whether the defendant is sentenced to death or life or prison without the possibility of parole.
Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael W. Sweet is expected to rule Tuesday whether the journal’s contents — which Hirschfield’s lawyers have described as “fictional writings” — should be released to the public prior to the penalty phase, a move that defense attorneys say could potentially prejudice jurors and violate Hirschfield’s right to a fair trial.
The jury convicted Hirschfield, 63, of two counts of first-degree murder with special circumstances on Nov. 5, after a two-month trial and about three hours of deliberations.
As of late last week, Hirschfield’s lawyers had yet to file any paperwork detailing the mitigating evidence they plan to present on their client’s behalf, although they previously have said details of his childhood and upbringing likely will be raised for the jury’s consideration.
“We have a pool of individuals we are considering,” including both civilian and expert witnesses, defense attorney Linda Parisi told Sweet on Thursday.
Depending on the issues presented by the defense, Bladet indicated she may call as a rebuttal witness Hirschfield’s own mother, who told a detective “she prayed for her son … to die before he hurt anyone else.”
“She feels guilt for bringing him into the world,” the prosecutor wrote in a motion outlining her penalty-phase case. “In her opinion, he’s not going to change and he blew his chance after he got out of prison for rape.”
Tales of loss
The attorneys sparred for several days last week over the scope of testimony that will be presented during the six-day penalty phase, which begins Nov. 26.
Bladet says she plans to call to the stand both sets of parents — Dick and Kate Riggins and Kim and George Gonsalves. Several of the victims’ siblings also appear on the witness list.
Kate Riggins, Bladet said, will identify photographs of her first-born son and discuss the impacts of his loss on her family. The prosecutor also plans to question Dick Riggins about John’s personality and his aspirations of becoming a doctor, following in his father’s footsteps.
His younger brother, Robert Riggins, “will describe how for a year he would cry in the shower as he did on the day he learned his brother was murdered,” Bladet wrote. “In his life, Robert … has sought friendships with older men, trying to get some of what he lost in losing his older brother.”
Jurors also will hear about the numerous tributes to the slain couple, including an asteroid, a memorial footbridge in the Mendocino County redwoods and Davis’ popular Warm Remembrance Festival, which for years brought families together in Central Park to honor Riggins’ and Gonsalves’ work with young children.
Andrea Gonsalves Rosenstein, one of Gonsalves’ two older sisters, plans to talk about the three children she adopted in honor of her sister, “and for the children her sister was never able to have because of her untimely death,” Bladet wrote.
Her other sister, Terese Attalah, is expected to talk about dropping out of college following the murders “because living in Davis was unbearable,” the motion says. “She suffered from nightmares, insomnia, depression and guilt about surviving when her sister did not.”
Bladet said she also wants Kim Gonsalves to testify about how the slaying of her youngest child affected her husband’s health, to the point she said he suffered a series of strokes.
Parisi objected to the latter, saying she would want to review George Gonsalves’ medical records for proof that the strokes were a direct result of his daughter’s death.
“Certainly that is a product of age … as opposed to this one event,” she said.
The defense attorney said Kim Gonsalves also should refrain from mentioning Thanksgiving 1980 as the last time she saw her daughter and Riggins alive.
Jurors will have just returned from their own Thanksgiving gatherings, Parisi said, and “it certainly runs the danger of causing them to place themselves in the shoes of the victims.”
The trial is moving into the Christmas season — the time that Hirschfield “chose to kidnap and kill these two people,” Bladet retorted. “He stuck with that time frame. … That was in Mr. Hirschfield’s control.”
Sweet said Kim Gonsalves’ testimony should avoid any mention of Thanksgiving, but he will permit her to share her observations of her husband’s declining health.
While other factors may have been involved, the murders were “a catastrophic event … probably the most significant event in these people’s lives,” Sweet said.
“We’re not here to try to sanitize this,” he added. “This is the impact, the loss of these victims.”
— Reach Lauren Keene at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-747-8048. Follow her on Twitter @laurenkeene