SACRAMENTO — The forensic pathologist who conducted murder victim John Riggins’ autopsy said the UC Davis student may have battled for his life in the moments before he died.
Dr. Pierce Rooney based his theory on the five lacerations and abrasions inflicted on Riggins’ head by an unidentified blunt object, possibly in an attempt to render him unconscious.
“He could have been putting up a fight (against) the other injuries” that included strangulation and a fatal cut to his throat, said Rooney, who died in 2009 but had his testimony videotaped at defendant Richard Hirschfield’s preliminary hearing two years before. The video was played at Hirschfield’s trial Thursday in Sacramento Superior Court.
Hirschfield, 63, has pleaded not guilty to allegations that he abducted and killed Riggins and his girlfriend, Sabrina Gonsalves, from Davis on the night of Dec. 20, 1980. The 18-year-olds’ bodies were found two days later in a Folsom-area ravine, putting their postmortem exams under the Sacramento County coroner’s jurisdiction.
Like Gonsalves, Riggins’ head and wrists had been wrapped in duct tape, though their wrist binds had been cut or torn before they landed in the ravine. Riggins also had the tape around his ankles, Rooney noted in his autopsy report.
“He suffered a lot of trauma,” Rooney testified, detailing the multiple wounds Riggins had to his head and neck. A reddish mark around his neck “suggests part of a ligature, something that was wrapped around the neck.”
The left neck also showed what appeared to be fingernail marks, which Rooney said would be consistent with Riggins trying to free himself from a strangulation device.
His cause of death, however, was a four-inch-long cut to his throat that caused him to aspirate blood, Rooney said.
The cutting injuries to Gonsalves were more severe, numbering six in all and including two that perforated her larynx and jugular vein, pathologist Anthony Cunha testified the day before.
Although he didn’t perform Gonsalves’ autopsy, Rooney said he reviewed Cunha’s report, which noted an abrasion and “roughening” to Gonsalves’ vaginal area but concluded she had not been sexually assaulted. Rooney, however, indicated he wouldn’t rule an assault out.
“Somebody was doing something there,” Rooney said. “Whether or not that constitutes a sexual doing, I don’t know.”
The sexual assault allegation is one of several special circumstances attached to the murder charges that qualify Hirschfield for the death penalty if he is convicted. He was identified as a suspect in the case through an alleged DNA match back in 2002, more than two decades after the killings.
The DNA hailed from a semen-stained blanket found in Riggins’ van. But the stains went undetected for nearly 12 years, despite undergoing several examinations.
One person who inspected the blanket early on, retired Sacramento County criminalist Ken Mack, admitted Thursday that he disregarded a request by Lt. Ray Biondi, then head of the Sacramento sheriff’s homicide unit, to examine the fabric for physiological fluids.
“I had no indication there was a sexual assault involved in this case,” explained Mack, who came to court in a wheelchair, having recently been hospitalized for a six-week stretch. He said he instead limited his exam to trace evidence such as plant material and mud from the crime scene.
Mack said his decision also stemmed from a then-recent California Supreme Court decision, People v. Nation, that requires sufficient amounts of physical evidence to be preserved and made available for the defense, if a suspect is identified.
“I was hesitant, without a suspect, to look for things that were not there,” Mack said. He added that DNA was not a forensic tool that was available at the time, but “if I had seen (a stain), I would have made a note of it.”
Hirschfield’s defense attorneys also questioned Mack about evidence-handling practices at the Sacramento County crime lab, particularly in light of a 1981 incident in which evidence was tampered with and cocaine stolen under Mack’s watch as the lab’s director.
“Other than being in charge, I didn’t have anything to do with it,” said Mack, who was removed from his director’s post following the controversy but later reinstated.
The trial resumes Monday, when the prosecution is expected to rest its case.
— Reach Lauren Keene at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-747-8048. Follow her on Twitter @laurenkeene