Jury calls for death penalty against 'sweethearts' murderer Hirschfield

afurillo@sacbee.comDecember 7, 2012 

His eyes welled red Thursday when he shared a moment of emotion with the families of the murdered college kids, but they burned like fire when they bore into the man whose passport he stamped for death row.

"His reign of terror, his reign of fear – it's over," jury foreman Glenn Oliveira said, after his panel voted to condemn Richard Joseph Hirschfield to death for the murders of UC Davis students John Riggins and Sabrina Gonsalves nearly 32 years ago.

Oliveira's stare-down of Hirschfield put an exclamation point on the jury's conviction of him last month in the "sweethearts" killings. In an interview after the death penalty verdict was read in court, the foreman, a 39-year-old bus mechanic, said there most definitely was a message he wanted to convey to the sex murderer.

"I think he's somebody that has always, at least part of his life, has tried to put fear into people," Oliveira said. "I just wanted him to know he's not going to scare people anymore."

It took the Sacramento Superior Court jury less than 2 1/2 hours to reach its verdict in the penalty phase of the trial – an hour less than the panel needed to find Hirschfield guilty last month of kidnapping and murdering the couple, both 18, and of sexually attacking the young woman.

As jury members filed out of the courtroom, one of them grasped the arm of John Riggins' father, Dr. Richard Riggins, who was seated on an aisle. Another stopped and nodded, and the father thanked him.

"It was a pleasure to shake that person's hand," Richard Riggins said. "We owe this jury so much. They spent so much of their time sitting there listening to what went on."

After the verdict, about two dozen friends and supporters of the Riggins and Gonsalves families gathered with them in the first-floor lobby of the downtown courthouse to breathe in their new reality: finally, a legal resolution to the horrific night of Dec. 20, 1980.

Riggins, his wife, Cecelia, and Sabrina Gonsalves' sister, Andrea Rosenstein, all looked and sounded as if some of the years of emotional turmoil from the slayings had been lifted.

They said they believe it unlikely that Hirschfield, 63, will ever be put to death, given California's lengthy appeal process. But they said they still were pleased that the jury delivered the harshest possible punishment.

"I am so excited and so relieved and so happy," Rosenstein said. "Now we can stop thinking about him and put him out of our life and focus on living and missing Sabrina. He is exactly where he belongs. He is isolated, with the stigma of death row. This is the only justice California can offer us. I'll take it."

Riggins said, "It's up to the state to carry out the death penalty, and I don't know if they will ever do that or not." But even if Hirschfield escapes death by lethal injection, the doctor said, "his life will be much more restricted than if he was sentenced to life without parole."

"It's just truly a relief," Cecelia Riggins said.

Judge Michael W. Sweet set Jan. 25 as the date he will rule on Hirschfield's sentence. Deputy District Attorney Dawn Bladet said she would limit her public comments until after the sentencing. "I'm grateful that the jurors had the courage and the conviction to render the just verdict," is all she said Thursday.

Defense attorney Linda Parisi vowed an appeal. She expressed disappointment in the death verdict and astonishment at how little time it took the seven-man, five-woman jury to come to the decision. "I find it amazing, in light of the fact it is such a serious and somber decision, it took so little discussion," Parisi said.

Oliveira said the jury's deliberations, if lightning-fast, were not easy. He said the presence of Hirschfield's DNA on a semen-stained blanket found in the Riggins' family van that was used to transport the couple to the site where they were killed was "pretty concrete" in proving his guilt.

Jurors summarily rejected a defense argument that four other people initially charged in Yolo County were responsible for the killings, Oliveira said. Members of the so-called "Hunt group" were exonerated by the DNA evidence. The jury also was dubious, the foreman said, of defense claims that Hirschfield suffered from brain damage and should be spared the death penalty because of a difficult childhood.

"In a way, he put himself away," Oliveira said. "It was his doing that put him in that chair. It was his doing that's going to put him back in prison. It was his doing that's going to put him on death row."

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