For 31 years they've waited. Now it looks like friends and family of slain UC Davis sweethearts John Riggins and Sabrina Gonsalves have only about six weeks more to go.
On Thursday, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael W. Sweet denied a request by attorneys for Richard Hirschfield to delay the defendant's murder trial until the middle of June.
Sweet's refusal to continue the case kept in place the scheduled March 19 date when jury selection in the death-penalty trial is supposed to begin.
It also represented something of a watershed moment in a case that has taken so long to make it to trial that at least 25 of 485 potential witnesses have died.
With more than 20 pretrial motions still unresolved, Sweet said it's likely the trial won't begin on schedule. But his decision to hold firm to the March 19 date heartened the half-dozen supporters of the victims who showed for Thursday's hearing.
"There is a light at the end of the tunnel," said Ginger Swigart, Sabrina Gonsalves' aunt.
Gonsalves and Riggins, both 18, were kidnapped in Davis on Dec. 20, 1980. Their bodies were found two days later in a ravine near Lake Natoma, their throats slashed. Gonsalves had been sexually assaulted.
Seven years later, Yolo County prosecutors charged four people with the killings. But former Yolo County District Attorney David C. Henderson dropped charges in 1993 when a DNA test of a semen sample taken from a blanket in Riggins' van didn't match any of the defendants.
Nine years later, a DNA hit came back on Hirschfield, now 63, imprisoned then in the state of Washington for rape. Sacramento prosecutors charged him with the "sweethearts murders" in 2004. He was ordered to trial in March 2007. His case was assigned to Sweet in January 2009.
Continued testing on additional DNA samples delayed the case. Defense attorney Linda Parisi also was granted continuances for other trial commitments. Last year, the defense sought more time in an effort to link the killings to the Yolo defendants.
The defense team asked for another delay on Thursday because the attorneys still have not retained an expert for the penalty phase of Hirschfield's trial if he is found guilty.
Parisi told the judge she has been in contact with a mitigation expert required under U.S. Supreme Court case law to assess Hirschfield's social history and present it to the jury if and when it deliberates on the death penalty.
She said the expert couldn't commit to being prepared for trial unless jury selection was pushed back to mid-June. She said there is risk the case could be overturned on appeal due to ineffective assistance of counsel if the expert isn't ready at the trial's outset.
Outside the courtroom, Parisi acknowledged "it's our fault" the defense team waited so long to find the expert. She said she and her co-counsel, Assistant Public Defender Ken Schaller, have been so consumed in sorting through more than 225,000 pages of discovery that they didn't contact their expert until December.
"It's not done, and that's where we're at," she said, "This is a huge case. We have worked very hard on other facets of the case."
In court, Deputy District Attorney Dawn Bladet said it was "inconceivable" that the defense's inability to retain a mitigation expert "was simply an oversight."
"It smacks of an intentional effort to delay this trial once again," Bladet said.
The judge agreed with Bladet that even if the motions are not finished by March 19, the lawyers still should push toward the trial date.
"We need to keep moving," he said.
The decision left the victims' side "extremely excited and pleased," according to Swigart
"To have a continuance would have been such a defeat to us, to the parents and the family and friends who want to see this end, who want to see this come to justice," she said.