Death or mercy: It's up to jury in UC Davis 'sweetheart' murders

12/06/2012 12:00 AM

12/06/2012 12:20 PM

The prosecutor demanded justice and the defense pleaded for mercy as the decades-long story of the UC Davis "sweetheart" murders neared its final chapter.

Three months and a day after they began hearing evidence in the murder trial of Richard Joseph Hirschfield, the seven men and five women of the jury gathered late Wednesday afternoon to begin discussions on whether he should live or die.

Last month, the same jury found Hirschfield guilty in the throat-slashing and bludgeoning murders of John Riggins and Sabrina Gonsalves in December 1980. The panel now is charged with deciding whether the multiple murders, the abduction of the 18-year-old college freshmen and a sexual attack on the young woman should bring Hirschfield, 63, the death penalty or life in prison with no chance of parole.

"I stand here before you today completely understanding the gravity of what it is I am asking you to do," Deputy District Attorney Dawn Bladet told the jury in her closing argument in Sacramento Superior Court. "I am asking you to return a verdict of death. A verdict of death in this case is the only punishment for this defendant and these crimes, and I ask that with no hesitation whatsoever."

Bladet said the circumstances of the killings were enough by themselves to merit the death penalty: two young people kidnapped during the Christmas season, brutally murdered by the killer who first wrapped their heads in duct tape, tortured them, then dumped them in a ditch near Lake Natoma.

If the jury wanted more, the prosecutor reminded the panelists of Hirschfield's prior convictions on at least 14 felony counts that stemmed from a 1975 burglary and rape in Mountain View and the 1996 sexual molestation of two young girls in a public swimming pool in Seattle.

The prosecutor said Hirschfield killed Riggins and Gonsalves just five months after his release from prison in the Mountain View attack. Riggins and Gonsalves, she said, "were as good as good gets," a prospective medical engineer and occupational therapist whose deaths "robbed the community."

"Does he deserve another 20 or more years of breathing the same breath, the same air that we do?" Bladet said. "Does he deserve to wake up every morning? Even if it's in prison, he uses five senses, laughs, jokes, interacts with people, knows who won the World Series. That's a life. It may not be a great life, but it's a life."

Defense attorneys Linda Parisi and Ken Schaller countered that Hirschfield – from the time of his incestuous birth – never had a chance in his life. He was born after his mother was impregnated by her stepfather.

They described a childhood enveloped by a sense of fear, transmitted by a mother who was tormented by abuse and degradation at the hands of the rapist who took control of her.

The defense attorneys also reminded the jury of a defense expert's testimony that Hirschfield had a damaged brain. It sent out anti-social impulses that it could not control, the expert said.

"This is the time to punish," Parisi said. "But it's time for the killing to stop."

She said that even if the jury didn't believe Hirschfield's brain damage or his childhood mitigated his crimes, that it still was OK for any one of them to reach inside themselves and say, "I saved a man's life, that's what I did today."

"Two killings, and adding another killing to it does not help," Parisi said. "It does not restore. And it's not where justice is found."

Riggins and Gonsalves were last seen working as volunteers at the Davis Children's Nutcracker production at the Veteran's Memorial Theatre. Bladet said the evidence showed they were abducted sometime after 8:30 p.m. and killed the same night. Hirschfield wasn't arrested until 2004, two years after a cold DNA hit matched his genetic material to a semen-stained blanket found in the Riggins' family van.

Defense lawyers insisted at trial that four other defendants who had previously been arrested and charged by the Yolo County District Attorney's Office – but who were later cleared by the DNA results – were actually responsible for the killings.

Schaller, however, appeared to concede during his portion of the defense's closing argument Wednesday that Hirschfield was guilty. "I submit he did do a horrific act, a horrendous act," Schaller said of his client.

Outside court, Schaller, an assistant public defender, backed away from suggesting that Hirschfield was guilty, saying the remark was mainly meant to acknowledge to the jury the fact that "they convicted him."

Parisi, in her opening statement to the jury in the penalty phase of the trial, told the panel, "We are disappointed in your verdict." She said outside court Wednesday, "I certainly would not make that acknowledgment" that Hirschfield is guilty.

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