Witness: Killer's youth filled with fear

12/04/2012 12:00 AM

01/27/2013 10:59 AM

Defense attorneys for Richard Joseph Hirschfield rested their case Monday with an expert witness who testified the convicted sex murderer had been traumatized as a child by a drunken and abusive father who engendered fear in the family household.

Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael W. Sweet scheduled closing arguments in the penalty phase of Hirschfield's murder trial for Wednesday. Jurors last month convicted Hirschfield in the Dec. 20, 1980, murders of UC Davis sweethearts John Riggins and Sabrina Gonsalves and in a sexual attack on the young woman.

The panel is now being asked to decide if Hirschfield, 63, should be executed or sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for the throat-slashing killings of the two 18-year-olds.

In an effort to engender sympathy for Hirschfield, his lawyers called in a clinical psychologist, Leslie Lebowitz, of Newton Center, Mass., to testify about the defendant's childhood.

Lebowitz based her testimony on statements taken from Hirschfield's mother and other family members. She told the jury about the defense claim that Hirschfield's mother was raped by her stepfather, whom Lebowitz described as "a very frightening man" who was "a heavy drinker and quite abusive."

Quoting from an interview with Hirschfield's mother, Lebowitz, under questioning from defense attorney Linda Parisi, testified the woman first was raped by the stepfather when she was 13, impregnated by him when she was 14 and gave birth to Hirschfield when she was 15.

Once Hirschfield was born, his maternal grandmother essentially gave her daughter to her ex-husband in exchange for their house, Lebowitz testified. Hirschfield's mother later married her rapist and had five more children with him, according to the reports Lebowitz read. The psychologist testified the family moved to Denver, where Hirschfield's mother said her husband once brought home a man to have sex with her.

The woman gathered her children and escaped with them to Colusa, where Hirschfield's father returned on three occasions, "and they are terrifying experiences, according to her description," Lebowitz testified.

The identity of Hirschfield's mother is being withheld because she is a sexual assault victim. Hirschfield's father's name also is being withheld because it could help to publicly identify his mother.

Under cross-examination from Deputy District Attorney Dawn Bladet, Lebowitz testified that she didn't write a report on her conclusions, that she didn't interview Hirschfield and that she was retained only last Wednesday for a fee of $400 an hour.

Lebowitz said "there is no physical assault that is described" on Hirschfield in the reports by the defendant's mother. She testified the father, in disciplining Hirschfield and his brothers and sisters, "swatted their butts and legs and spanked them."

The real trauma Hirschfield experienced, Lebowitz testified, "would have been transmitted to him by his mother" who was terrified after being "forced to live with the man who had been beating and raping her since childhood."

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