3 decades after killing, delay in trial sought

afurillo@sacbee.comJune 11, 2011 

Another decade has passed, but the story remained depressingly the same Friday for the families of slain UC Davis students John Riggins and Sabrina Gonsalves – a court delay and the prospect of more to come.

This time, lawyers for the man charged in the killing of the college sweethearts asked to continue the case until April so they can dig through court records on the late serial killer Gerald Gallego. The attorneys say the files are crucial to the defense of their client, Richard Joseph Hirschfield.

Relatives of Riggins and Gonsalves don't see it, and neither does Deputy District Attorney Dawn Bladet.

Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael W. Sweet said from the bench it's "not my job to wait for the defense to announce that they're totally ready to go."

But he put off until June 24 his ruling on the request to delay the trial. Hirschfield's death penalty case is scheduled to begin Aug. 16.

Continued inaction in the case did not come as a surprise to the half-dozen relatives of the victims in court Friday. But it did frustrate them.

"I think this is totally ridiculous and I'm hoping and praying that the judge will deny this motion and let the trial continue," said Sabrina Gonsalves' aunt, Ginger Swigart.

Swigart is the sister of George Gonsalves, who is Sabrina Gonsalves' father.

"My brother is 75, and he deserves to see justice done, as does the Riggins family," Swigart said.

Riggins and Gonsalves, both 18, were last seen Dec. 20, 1980, after attending a presentation of "The Nutcracker" in Davis. Their bodies were discovered two days later in a ravine near Lake Natoma, 35 miles to the east, their heads wrapped in duct tape and their throats slit.

Hirschfield, now 62, was imprisoned at the time of his 2004 arrest on a rape case in Washington state. Sacramento authorities linked him to the sweetheart killings when his DNA matched the genetic material in a semen stain deposited on a blanket found in Riggins' van after the bodies were discovered.

The Sacramento case was filed 11 years after tests on the same DNA sample forced prosecutors in Yolo County to exclude four suspects they had in custody. The four had been charged on the theory they were trying to throw investigators off the track of the serial-murdering Gallego, half-brother to one of the Yolo suspects.

Gallego, in jail and awaiting trial at the time of the couple's killing, was later convicted of four murders. Sentenced to death in Nevada, he died of cancer in 2002.

Defense attorneys Linda Parisi and Ken Schaller say they need to finish reading Gallego's trial records in Contra Costa County and in Nevada in order to defend Hirschfield. They think Yolo County prosecutors got it right on Gallego half-brother David Raymond Hunt and his three cohorts, whom they blame in the sweetheart killings.

"This is critical information for us to review on Hunt and Hunt's motivation, his connection with Gallego – it's all critical to the presentation to show it's not Mr. Hirschfield who committed this offense, despite any DNA evidence," Parisi said in an interview outside court. "It was in fact the Hunt group."

Parisi and Schaller said in court papers there are 73,699 pages of materials on Gallego in the two trials and that they still need to read 40,000 of them. Altogether, they say the case has generated more than 220,000 pages of materials, 2,000 photographs and 300 tape recordings.

Bladet countered in courtroom arguments Friday that the Gallego files are replete with motions and copies of motions. She said it shouldn't take the defense lawyers long to deem much of the stuff irrelevant. She wants the Hirschfield murder trial to launch in August as scheduled. Extensive pretrial motions are likely to push opening statements into the fall as it is, according to Bladet.

"We are continually losing witnesses to death and illnesses, and memories are getting even fainter," Bladet said in court. "We are having a detriment both to the people's case, the defense case, and the administration of justice, and the family members who have rights in this regard as well."

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