In a murder trial that took 32 years to get started, another 12-day interruption prompted by a lawyer's injury was met with a shrug Wednesday by the family of one of the slaying victims.
"It's an unforeseen accident, and there's nothing much you can do about it," Dr. Richard Riggins said after a judge delayed the proceedings against Richard Joseph Hirschfield because the defendant's attorney needed surgery on a knee she injured in the courthouse Tuesday.
"We're disappointed we have to wait, but we understand," Riggins said.
Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael W. Sweet postponed the trial until Sept. 24 as a result of defense attorney Linda Parisi's injury. The lawyer slipped and fell in the first-floor courthouse lobby Tuesday before what was supposed to be the fifth day of testimony in Hirschfield's murder trial.
The 63-year-old defendant is facing the death penalty in the Dec. 20, 1980, "sweethearts" killings of 18-year-old UC Davis students Sabrina Gonsalves and John Riggins.
They were abducted after helping put on the Davis Children's Nutcracker, and their bodies were found more than 30 miles away in a ravine off Folsom Boulevard south of Lake Natoma. Their throats had been slashed. Gonsalves had been sexually assaulted.
Prosecutors pushed ahead Wednesday with four witnesses, despite the absence of Parisi, who is defending Hirschfield along with assistant public defenders Ken Schaller and David Lynch. After the testimony, the two co-counsel in a closed court session gave their strategic reasons for requesting the delay. Sweet then said he was "persuaded we should wait until the 24th" to resume the trial.
One of Parisi's daughters, Jessica Graves, told Sweet her mother had surgery Tuesday night and had been placed under anesthesia. Graves said she was "shocked" when she learned that testimony resumed Wednesday.
"Frankly, the fact this case is moving forward is affecting her recovery," Graves said.
Parisi is a former supervising attorney in the Public Defender's Office who is now in private practice. She was the lead attorney on the Hirschfield case from the time prosecutors first filed it in 2004. The District Attorney's Office brought the case based on a cold DNA hit that prosecutors said matched Hirschfield's genetic material to a semen-stained blanket recovered from the victims' 1977 Chevrolet van.
When Parisi left the public defender's staff, the office technically became the lead attorney on the case. Parisi, however, remained as the de facto head of the defense team.
Co-counsel Schaller confirmed Wednesday that if the trial had proceeded without Parisi, "I'm sure it would have become an issue" on appeal if Hirschfield is convicted. "The issue would have come down to whether the de facto lead attorney has a right to be in court," Schaller said.
Deputy District Attorney Dawn Bladet told the judge that "obviously" Parisi's absence from the courtroom "is causing a lot of reshuffling" of the prosecution's witnesses. Bladet changed her lineup Wednesday to bring in witnesses, out of order, who Schaller had prepared to cross-examine.
Bladet did not challenge the defense request to delay the trial, saying the continued "picking and choosing" of witnesses to accommodate Schaller's preparation threatened to make her presentation "nonsensical" to the jury.
Two witnesses who did testify Wednesday provided chilling recollections of the night Riggins and Gonsalves died.
Kelley Evelyn Crawford said that on the evening the couple disappeared, she and a male friend had been drinking wine in his van on a dirt road leading to the ravine site where the bodies were discovered two days later.
Out of the darkness, Crawford said, she and her friend saw another van turn off Folsom Boulevard and speed directly toward them.
Crawford said her friend switched on the lights of his vehicle so the van could see them, and "they swerved around us and continued past us." When the other van veered toward the ravine, parked and turned off its lights, she and her friend decided to leave.
"He said 'Nobody ever goes back there. This is not right,' " Crawford testified.
They called police the next day when they saw the story on the TV news about the missing students from UC Davis, and they believed pictures put out of the victims' van looked like the one they saw seen near the ravine, Crawford said.
Another witness, Kathryn Jean Hart, said that on the same night, she saw a van blocking the right lane of northbound Hazel Avenue just south of the American River.
Hart testified she saw a dark sedan parked right behind it. When she stopped to offer help, Hart said she didn't see anybody and drove off.
Prosecutors have theorized that Hirschfield's brother drove the sedan to pick up the defendant who they say abducted the students in Davis and killed them in the ravine. The van was discovered the next day parked off Folsom Boulevard west of Hazel.
Hirschfield's brother killed himself at his home in Oregon after sheriff's detectives interviewed him in 2002. He left a suicide note apologizing to his wife, saying "I was there" when Riggins and Gonsalves were slain. The prosecution is expected to introduce the note during the trial.