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Bob Dunning: What does his brain have to do with it?

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From page A2 | December 02, 2012 |

“Doctor: Killer’s brain is ‘not normal,’” said the front-page headline in Friday’s Enterprise.

I think we already knew that about convicted murderer Richard Hirschfield, who took the promising lives of two young Davisites in the most horrific fashion 30 years ago. There had to be something “not normal” about this man to even imagine doing what he did to John Riggins and Sabrina Gonsalves.

Not only did he take the lives of two of Davis’ finest, he also sentenced their parents and siblings and extended families to a lifetime of agony that simply never ends. He wounded the soul of this town and shook us to our core, and those of us who lived here then will never forget that horrible time.

The condition of Hirschfield’s brain has become a point of contention in the penalty phase of his murder trial as his jury debates whether he should be executed or spend the rest of his life in prison.

No matter the outcome, there will be no closure for the families of John and Sabrina. If Hirschfield is sentenced to life in prison, these families will have to live with the reality that their children are dead while their murderer lives. And if Hirschfield is sentenced to death, these same families will be forced to endure the inevitable delays and appeals that can drag on for another 10 or 15 years.

For me, the condition of Hirschfield’s brain is hardly relevant to what his ultimate sentence should be. If his brain was truly damaged to the point that he didn’t know right from wrong, it might affect his moral culpability, but society still must be protected from someone who is capable of such monstrous crimes, no matter the source of his behavior.

Moral culpability is in the hands of God. Protecting society is in the hands of the jury.

“His brain is not normal,” said Dr. Douglas Tucker, an associate professor at the UCSF School of Medicine after studying images of Hirschfield’s brain. Tucker went on to describe it as a “clear-cut structural abnormality” that is basically “brain damage.”

He further testified that this damage put Hirschfield at risk of antisocial behavior and also diminished his ability to learn from punishment.

At this point, however, it’s hard to imagine jurors worrying for even a second that Hirschfield won’t learn anything from the sentence they impose. In fact, Tucker’s testimony might actually convince a jury that death is the best option.

According to Lauren Keene’s account in Friday’s Enterprise, “Defense attorneys, hoping to spare their client from execution, have said Hirschfield endured an abusive and ‘chaotic’ childhood that mitigates his later criminal conduct.”

Let’s be very clear here. While the effects of an abusive childhood can be devastating, there is absolutely nothing in Hirschfield’s past that can mitigate in any way the cruelty, depravity and absolute terror he brought to John Riggins and Sabrina Gonsalves.

The defense, desperate to paint Hirschfield in a light he doesn’t deserve, also brought out three friends from Hirschfield’s childhood days in Colusa.

About all these three could come up with, however, was that Hirschfield wanted desperately to be liked and was incredibly unsuccessful in that regard. The relevance of that testimony to the sentence he should receive is hard to determine, but there was nothing there to sway a juror to view Hirschfield sympathetically.

I have always been opposed to the death penalty, perhaps guilty at times of focusing more on the condemned than on the victims. For a time, in fact, I thought the death penalty was one of the great evils in our society. I still feel it’s wrong, but it’s no longer at the top of my list.

While I continue to be opposed to the death penalty in virtually all instances, for me it’s primarily a religious belief, based on the concept that every human life comes from God and is therefore sacred. The conflict with that belief comes when someone like Richard Hirschfield shows a complete disregard for the sacredness of life and must be dealt with in a way that effectively protects society.

I don’t pretend to know what sort of outcome John’s and Sabrina’s families and loved ones wish for in this case. Mostly, they wish to have John and Sabrina back with them, living and loving life, and fulfilling the many dreams their parents had for them on the day they were born.

Sadly, no jury in the world can make that happen.

— Reach Bob Dunning at bdunning@davisenterprise.net

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