With a judge's promise and ruling, it appears the UC Davis "sweethearts" murder trial will begin sooner rather than later and last shorter instead of longer.
Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael W. Sweet said from the bench Wednesday that the case against defendant Richard Hirschfield "is a top priority and we have to get it to trial." He told defense lawyers who scheduled vacations for June and July that their plans to take time off work now "are secondary."
"My goal is to press on," Sweet said.
The judge, who has had the case for more than three years, is finishing his rulings on a batch of 150 pretrial motions. Although no firm date is set for the start of jury selection, court observers suggested Wednesday it could get under way by early summer.
Family and friends of the murder victims received the judge's remarks with delight.
"I'm very pleased with that," said Richard Riggins, whose son was one of the two students who were slain.
Hirschfield, 63, is facing the death penalty if convicted in the stabbing deaths of John Riggins and Sabrina Gonsalves. The two 18-year-old college students were kidnapped and killed Dec. 20, 1980, after having attended "The Nutcracker" in Davis. Their bodies were found about 30 miles east, in the Lake Natoma area.
Along with hope that the trial might be beginning fairly soon, the prosecution's side also was heartened Wednesday by the judge's ruling that severely limited the scope of Hirschfield's defense.
His attorneys have maintained that four people charged by Yolo County authorities 23 years ago but later cleared by DNA evidence committed the killings. The genetic material came in the form of a semen stain on a blanket in Riggins' van that the criminalists in 2002 matched up to Hirschfield, according to the prosecution.
In a ruling from the bench, Sweet blocked the defense from pursuing several avenues of inquiry in their effort to pin the murders on the so-called "Hunt group," named for David Hunt, one of the four exonerated defendants.
The judge ruled the defense still can seek to put on some evidence of "third-party" culpability. But he restricted it to some very limited physical evidence, such as a hair found on Riggins' sweater that "could" have matched Hunt's, according to a state criminalist.
Sweet said he will also allow the defense to bring in purported "admissions" made by members of the cleared quartet to other witnesses. He also allowed testimony from witnesses who told investigators they saw members of the Hunt group in the areas of the crime scenes.
But in his ruling from the bench, the judge essentially posted a stop sign preventing the defense from pursuing its theory of the case. It entails the old Yolo County prosecution contention that David Hunt orchestrated the killings as a copycat effort to throw suspicion off his half-brother Gerald Gallego, the since-deceased serial sex killer.
Sweet told the defense it could not put on evidence regarding Hunt's relationship with Gallego or about the slayings of a Sacramento couple abducted before the killings of Riggins and Gonsalves. He blocked them from getting into the Hunt group's movements the year before the sweetheart slayings, and he said defense lawyers can't put on anything concerning Hunt's criminal past.
"I'm disappointed in the restrictions on the evidence that we believe clearly was admissable regarding third-party guilt," defense attorney Linda Parisi said after the rulings.
In another ruling, Sweet allowed Deputy District Attorney Dawn Bladet to put on evidence of the defendant's 1975 rape conviction in Santa Clara County to show he had a propensity toward sexual violence.