The jury sent word back at midafternoon Monday on its first and only day of deliberations. After less than 3 1/2 hours of discussion, it had reached a verdict in the murder trial of Richard Joseph Hirschfield.
When the courtroom filled shortly after 4 p.m., everybody already knew the outcome. Even before the jury announced its decision, the judge and the lawyers agreed on dates for the penalty phase to determine whether Hirschfield should be put to death or spend the rest of his life in prison.
Still, it took a public reading of the findings from the seven-man, five-woman panel to make it official. As the court clerk confirmed Hirschfield's guilt, the jury foreman a bald man with a penetrating glare who looked to be in his 30s locked eyes with Hirschfield. The 63-year-old defendant, his coat collar rolled awkwardly outward, as if he had put it on in a hurry, looked away.
The clerk sped through the verdicts: Guilty, first-degree murder, in the throat-slashing and bludgeoning death of John Riggins. Guilty, first-degree murder, in the slashing of Sabrina Gonsalves. Special circumstance allegations of murder during the course of kidnap and forced oral copulation, and of multiple murders: true, true and true.
Hirschfield raped a woman in Mountain View in 1975, and he molested two little girls in a public pool in Renton, Wash., in 1996. But the jury did not determine he also raped Gonsalves.
Still empaneled, its members were admonished not to discuss the case. Their thoughts won't be known publicly until the completion of the trial's penalty phase, set for Nov. 26 before Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael W. Sweet. Hirschfield faces a death sentence or life without parole, though the options could be affected as California voters decide at the polls today whether to retain capital punishment.
"Well, generally I would have to say that I support the death penalty," said Dr. Richard Riggins, the retired physician and father of John Riggins who attended every one of the 27 days of court testimony and three days of closing arguments. "I don't see how someone like this has any value at all to society, or to the community in which he is in."
"But I'm 77 years old," Riggins added. "I don't have that much more time on this Earth. And if the people who are going to have to put up with him want to do it that way, I think that's their choice."
Riggins and his wife, Cecelia, and Kim and George Gonsalves, of Hawaii, have been waiting nearly 32 years for the return of justice in the deaths of their children on Dec. 20, 1980. The UC Davis sweethearts, both 18-year-old freshmen, were abducted after working on the Davis Children's Nutcracker. Their bodies were found slashed and brutalized, dumped in a ditch 30 miles away near Lake Natoma. Gonsalves had been sexually assaulted.
Outside the courthouse, Sabrina Gonsalves' older sister, Andrea Rosenstein, had just gotten off the phone with her parents in Hawaii.
"My mom said, 'Tell them we're elated!'" she said.
Rosenstein expressed uncertainty about Hirschfield's sentence. She said she was just "intensely and emotionally relieved" by the verdict: "I've waited for for a very long time."
The sentence, she suggested, almost doesn't matter to her.
"He's off the streets that's what I care about," she said. "That's what I want. I want him never to be able to hurt anybody ever again."
Rosenstein characterized Hirschfield as "evil." She said she was never more sure of that than when they showed pictures in court of the couple's sliced throats. Rosenstein said she watched Hirschfield as he watched the screen.
"I think he enjoys thinking about it, remembering it, feeling a sense of power, a sense of accomplishment," she said.
Deputy District Attorney Dawn Bladet declined to discuss the verdict until after the penalty phase.
Linda Parisi, who has led Hirschfield's three-person defense team, said, "Clearly, we are very disappointed in the jury's verdict."
The key piece of evidence at the trial was a semen-stained blanket found in Riggins' van, which was parked less than a mile from where the couple's bodies were found. DNA testing on the blanket, conducted 12 years after the murders, clicked to Hirschfield's genetic profile a one-in-240 trillion match.
Hirschfield's lawyers never challenged that it was his DNA on the blanket. They suggested he might have masturbated in the van, or had consensual sex with somebody in the vehicle, or that his late brother got the blanket out of the van the night of the killings, touched it to the defendant's semen and then returned it. The prosecutor dismissed the explanations as preposterous.
Still, Parisi told reporters she thinks she has a course of appeal. It would be to challenge Sweet's rulings that restricted her pursuit of a copycat theory of the case.
Parisi wanted to explore the theory that four defendants originally charged in the case by Yolo County authorities but exonerated by the DNA findings actually did kill Riggins and Gonsalves.
One of the four was the half-brother of the late serial sex murderer Gerald Gallegos. Parisi said she believes the discredited theory of a former Yolo County district attorney that those four killed the teens to throw attention off Gallegos.
"It is clear we have a significant amount of evidence we sought to have introduced," Parisi said. "The court ruled it was inadmissible, and that will clearly be the subject of review."
The victims' families didn't seem concerned.
"It's standard procedure in a case like this," Richard Riggins said of the appeal, "particularly when you don't have much to work with."