Evidence-handling assumed the major focus Monday as the long-awaited murder trial resumed into the 1980 killings of UC Davis "sweethearts" John Riggins and Sabrina Gonsalves.
The case had been delayed since Sept. 11, when one of the lawyers for defendant Richard Joseph Hirschfield injured her knee and underwent surgery.
Defense attorney Linda Parisi was back Monday, seated in a wheelchair next to her client in a trial that will have testimony shortened from six hours a day to four to accommodate her medical needs.
By no means did any of Monday's four Sacramento Superior Court witnesses qualify as showstoppers. Three of them told how bags of evidence were documented and handled in the sheriff's property room and the DA's crime lab. A fourth discussed her collection of swabs taken from Gonsalves' body that suggested the female victim had been raped.
By itself, the testimony on the trial's first day back would appear to be of little consequence. But it is expected to take on added significance during closing arguments when Deputy District Attorney Dawn Bladet and Parisi and her co-counsel, Assistant Public Defender Ken Schaller, battle over the chain of custody in the handling of a blanket found in the victims' van the night of their Dec. 20, 1980, abduction. It had been smeared with four semen stains.
Bladet told jurors in her opening statement that the fluid's DNA matched Hirschfield's. Parisi countered that the chain of custody leading up to the serological testing on the blanket was so fraught with glitches that the jury should hold it in very deep suspicion.
Under questioning from Bladet, sheriff's supervising property officer Mycal Brummer, supervising criminalist Robert Eugene Garbutt and crime lab employee Patsy Ching, all of whom are retired, provided simple accounts of how they documented evidence that passed through their links in the custody chain.
In her cross-examination, Parisi sought to raise doubts about the policies and procedures in their offices and how evidence was handled at each step along the way. The defense lawyer sought to take advantage of an opening provided by a failure on the part of the criminalists who handled the blanket in the months after the killings to find any serological materials on the blanket. The semen stains were not discovered until nearly 12 years after the killings and the match to Hirschfield was not completed until 2002, according to prosecutors.
Parisi appeared to score points in her questioning of Brummer when the property officer said that on occasion, she would open evidence bags looking for items and find more materials inside than previously had been documented.
"It did occur," Brummer said, but "not frequently."
Under further questioning by Bladet, Brummer testified that such discoveries took place after criminalists had taken samplings from an item such as the blanket found in the van and then placed the cuttings in the same evidence bag before returning it to the property warehouse.
The fourth witness of the day, Louise Thurmond, an assistant pathologist for the Sacramento County Coroner's Office at the time of the Riggins and Gonsalves deaths, testified about taking swabs from the female victim's body.
Bladet said in her opening statement that the swabs showed evidence of the sexual attack on Gonsalves, but Parisi countered in her remarks to the jury on the first day of trial that the initial evaluations of the slides prepared at the time of autopsy did not show any conclusive evidence of sperm.
Hirschfield, 63, is accused of abducting Riggins and Gonsalves after they had attended a performance of the Davis Children's Nutcracker at the Veterans Memorial Theater five days before Christmas, 32 years ago. Their bodies were discovered two days later in a ravine 30 miles to the east, off of Folsom Boulevard.
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against Hirschfield.