Pretrial motions proliferate in 'sweethearts' murder case

afurillo@sacbee.comOctober 1, 2011 

Richard Hirschfield, who has been convicted of two rapes, is accused of murdering two UC Davis students.

Prosecutors are looking to cut the heart out of the defense in the Davis "sweethearts" murder case while defense attorneys want to lock up the jury, move the trial out of town and have it delayed.

Over the last week, the lawyers have bombarded each other with more than 60 pretrial motions. One filed by the defense seeks to continue the trial beyond its scheduled Jan. 30 trial date. That one brought the parents of one of the victims to Sacramento Superior Court on Friday to oppose the idea.

"As we are getting older, this is something that is in our life every day," said Kate Riggins, 76. "We feel very strongly we need to keep to the date and at least get things under way so justice can be done."

Her son, John Riggins, and his girlfriend and fellow UC Davis student, Sabrina Gonsalves, both 18, were last seen the night of Dec. 20, 1980, after a presentation in town of "The Nutcracker." Their bodies were found two days later in a ravine near Lake Natoma.

A cold DNA hit in 2002 directed Sacramento County sheriff's detectives to a Washington state prison cell, where they found two-time convicted rapist Richard Joseph Hirschfield, now 62.

The Sacramento case was filed in 2004, nearly 12 years after former Yolo County District Attorney David Henderson was forced to drop a murder case he filed against four other people in the sweetheart killings.

Henderson theorized his four suspects kidnapped and killed the Davis students to provide a bizarre alibi for the late serial sex killer Gerald Gallego. Half-brother to one of the Yolo foursome, Gallego had just been arrested at the time of the sweetheart killings for the rape and murder of another Sacramento area couple.

Fast forward to the Hirschfield defense of the present day. It says Henderson got it right. Counter with the filings by Hirschfield's current prosecutor, Sacramento Deputy District Attorney Dawn Bladet.

She said the Yolo County prosecution consisted of "tenuous facts," a "convoluted theory" – and no evidence.

"Allowing the defendant to put on this evidence at trial would likely take significantly longer than the time required to put on the people's case against Hirschfield," the Sacramento County prosecutor wrote.

She said "the salacious display" of Gallego's "unrelated crimes to this jury would surely lead to confusion."

Hirschfield attorney Linda Parisi said the old Yolo theory "clearly is the heart of the defense." She said it is "beyond me" why the DA's office "would say they don't want a jury to know what happened."

While Bladet wants to keep the Yolo case out, she filed another motion to get more of Hirschfield's criminal history in. She said the jury needs to know about a pattern of violent sex crimes that includes two rape convictions, one for a 1991 attack in Washington and another for a Santa Clara County sex assault in 1975.

Among her other motions, Bladet wants to introduce a suicide note Hirschfield's brother wrote before he killed himself the day after Sacramento detectives questioned him in November 2002 about the sweetheart killings.

"I've been living with this horror for 20 years," the brother wrote. His note blamed Richard Hirschfield for the deaths, but Bladet asked to redact the mention of the defendant.

Parisi said the note would be relevant only if the brother were alive and on trial. It was excluded from Hirschfield's preliminary hearing.

As for the change of venue, Parisi said "the range of coverage has been broad" and "impacting." She asked for the jury sequestering because "there is danger" in a lengthy trial – she expects it to last four to six months – of panelists picking up information from outside the courtroom.

"Due process is not inexpensive," she said in an interview. "I don't just mean in dollars. I mean in significant impact on individuals."

In asking for the trial delay, Parisi said she needs more time to go through the 230,000 pages of discovery in the death penalty case.

For the parents and other relatives of the victims, it's been more than three decades since the killings.

"It's time to move on," Ginger Swigart, Sabrina Gonsalves' aunt, told the court.

Judge Michael W. Sweet seemed to agree. He told the lawyers to be ready to for hearings and rulings in early December. He said 25 of the 485 potential witnesses in the case have died.

"My goal is to press on," he said.

"Please do," said John Riggins' 76-year-old father, Richard Riggins, who drove with his wife from Pismo Beach to attend the hearing.

Modesto Bee is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service