SACRAMENTO — It took nearly 32 years, but the Riggins and Gonsalves families finally got the verdict they’d been waiting for.
A Sacramento County jury deliberated roughly three hours Monday before declaring Richard Joseph Hirschfield guilty of the crime that for years haunted the Davis community — the Dec. 20, 1980, kidnap-murders of UC Davis sweethearts John Riggins and Sabrina Gonsalves.
In doing so, they rejected the defense attorneys’ claim that it was another group of suspects who were behind the killings, despite the presence of DNA evidence that analysts said matched Hirschfield, 63, with 1-in-240 trillion odds.
“I feel just great relief, and thankful to the jury for making this decision,” Kate Riggins, John’s mother, said moments after the verdict was read in a courtroom filled with the victims’ family and friends. “We can’t bring him back, but at least it seems that we’re beginning to get some justice.”
Added Sabrina’s sister, Andrea Gonsalves Rosenstein, “I’m intensely relieved. I’m relieved that this part is over, and that (Hirschfield) will never hurt anyone else again. That’s all I want.”
In addition to two counts of first-degree murder, the seven-man, five-woman jury found it true that Hirschfield committed the killings in the commission of kidnapping and oral copulation, and that he performed multiple murders, all special circumstances that qualify him for either the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole.
They disagreed with a fourth special-circumstance allegation, that Hirschfield killed the couple in the course of a rape.
Hirschfield showed no apparent reaction as the court clerk announced his guilt, or when the jurors firmly answered “yes” when polled whether the verdicts were true and correct. The jury left the courthouse without comment, due back Nov. 26 for the trial’s penalty phase.
As the clerk read the verdict, social media delivered news of Hirschfield’s conviction around the world — including Qatar, where Gonsalves’ other sister Terese learned of it on Twitter and phoned her mother Kim in Hawaii, “before anyone had even gotten out of the courtroom,” Kim Gonsalves said in a phone interview Monday night.
“I’m absolutely ecstatic,” said Gonsalves, who plans to attend the trial’s penalty phase with her husband, George. “Nobody could even imagine how happy my family is, that we finally got that verdict.”
Deputy District Attorney Dawn Bladet declined to comment on the outcome, as the case is “still pending,” she said. She had portrayed Hirschfield as a “sexual deviant” who took pleasure in controlling and torturing the young couple before ending their lives with vicious cuts to their throats.
Attorneys have requested a six-day penalty phase, during which they’ll present evidence of aggravating and mitigating factors — including Hirschfield’s criminal history, his childhood and the impacts of the victims’ deaths — for the jury to consider as it recommends which sentence Hirschfield should receive.
“Certainly we have a lot of decisions to make about how to go forward,” Linda Parisi, Hirschfield’s lead defense attorney, told reporters in the court hallway. “We’re clearly very disappointed in the jury’s verdict, but there’s a lot of work left to be done in this case.”
Before jurors began deliberating Monday, the defense team filed several motions seeking either a mistrial or a chance to reopen their case to present evidence they believe was improperly excluded from the two-month trial: the alleged motive of the so-called “Hunt group,” the four suspects prosecuted in Yolo County before the DNA evidence cleared them in 1993.
Yolo’s theory — that lead suspect David Hunt orchestrated the college couple’s murders to draw heat away from his half-brother, serial killer Gerald Gallego, who was jailed then for a similar crime in Sacramento — was deemed potentially confusing and misleading by Judge Michael W. Sweet, who barred any mention of the copycat theory during Hirschfield’s trial.
“That will clearly be the subject of later review” as the conviction is appealed, Parisi said.
Riggins and Gonsalves were both 18 years old when they were abducted from Davis after ushering a performance of the “Davis Children’s Nutcracker.” Their bodies were found two days later in a wooded ravine off Folsom Boulevard and Aerojet Road, their throats slashed and heads wrapped in duct tape. Gonsalves, authorities said, was the victim of a sexual assault.
The case against Hirschfield hinged largely on DNA extracted from a semen-stained blanket that had been found in Riggins’ van, which was abandoned on Folsom Boulevard about a mile from the murder scene. The stains weren’t discovered until 1992, however, as Hunt and his cohorts were heading for trial.
Their charges were dismissed in light of the newly discovered DNA findings, but the case remained dormant until Sacramento County homicide detectives took a fresh look at the evidence in 2002. That summer, a cold-hit DNA match pointed authorities to Hirschfield, who was serving time for child molestation in a Washington state prison.
Investigators learned that Hirschfield had been to prison one other time, serving five years for robbery and rape before being released from a Vacaville facility just five months before the Riggins-Gonsalves slayings. He also was familiar with Davis, having stayed with a high school friend on Benicia Court, about a block from Gonsalves’ apartment on Alta Loma Street, in the early 1970s.
More damning evidence came with the November 2002 death of Hirschfield’s younger brother, Joseph Hirschfield, who committed suicide a day after authorities questioned him about Richard’s whereabouts at the time of the double homicide. Joseph Hirschfield left behind a note that said, in part, “I have been living with this horror for 20 years. I was there. My DNA is there.”
Amid a seven-hour closing argument last week, Hirschfield’s three lawyers contended the DNA evidence against their client was faulty due to possible contamination while in storage over the past three decades. But they also offered explanations for its presence on the blanket, saying he may have had consensual sex or masturbated inside Riggins’ van while it sat abandoned on Folsom Boulevard.
The jury, however, didn’t buy it.
“It’s a long time coming, but it’s absolutely the correct verdict,” said Dick Riggins, John’s father. “I never had any doubt in my mind that he’d done this. I appreciate (the jury’s) time and effort and their result. I’m quite pleased.”
— Reach Lauren Keene at email@example.com or (530) 747-8048. Follow her on Twitter @laurenkeene