Lawyers argued Wednesday over the extent of what friends and family of Sabrina Gonsalves and John Riggins can tell a death penalty jury about the devastating effect Richard Joseph Hirschfield's murder of the two UC Davis sweethearts had on their lives.
Deputy District Attorney Dawn Bladet pushed to get in as much as she could, including testimony from Sabrina's mother, Kim Gonsalves, describing how the violent death of her daughter caused the young woman's father to endure a series of strokes and led to a general deterioration of his health.
"I think it's fair for a wife to describe the change she saw in her husband directly related to these crimes," Bladet told Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael W. Sweet.
She said the victim's father, George Gonsalves, in his late 70s and suffering from what the prosector described as aging issues, "harbored a lot of anger and it affected not only his health but the way he interacted with his family after these murders."
Defense attorney Linda Parisi challenged much of the testimony the prosecutor wants to put on in the penalty phase of Hirschfield's trial, scheduled to begin Nov. 26.
Parisi characterized major portions of the proposed testimony as designed to incite the jury against her client, including the health status of Sabrina's father.
"We'd ask for his medical records," Parisi said, saying that the strokes suffered by George Gonsalves or any decline in his health was more likely due to the natural aging process. "If the court's going to let this in, we need his medical records."
The judge said he would allow the wife to testify about her husband's poor health, including her observation that their daughter's death precipitated his decline.
"I mean, we're not here to try to sanitize this," Sweet said from the bench. "This is the impact of the loss of his victims."
He said there is a danger that jurors could have "an irrational, emotional, biased response" to some of the victim impact testimony. But when it comes to families testifying in court how their lives were changed by the man who cut their loved ones' throats, bludgeoned one of them in the head and sexually assaulted the other, "It's not pleasant," Sweet said.
Hirschfield, 63, was convicted Nov. 5 of abducting and murdering Gonsalves and Riggins, both 18, Dec. 20, 1982, then sexually assaulting her and dumping their bodies in a ravine near Lake Natoma.
The site on Folsom Boulevard where the bodies were recovered is about 30 miles east from where Gonsalves and Riggins were kidnapped after they had worked on a production of the Davis Children's Nutcracker.
The jury's special-circumstance findings of multiple murders, murder during the course of an abduction and murder during a forced oral copulation set the stage for the penalty phase of the trial.
Bladet also is seeking to elicit testimony from Kim Gonsalves that the last time she saw her daughter alive was at Thanksgiving in 1980, when Sabrina brought Riggins over to the family's residence in Monterey for the holiday.
"John and Sabrina came to Monterey and they were so happy," Kim Gonsalves told DA's investigators, in a statement Bladet read in court. When they prepared to return to Davis, "They climbed into the car, smiling, and they told me not to worry," the mother told the investigators. "She was so young. She just left home. She was my baby."
Parisi said the reference to Thanksgiving during a penalty phase set to begin four days after the holiday "certainly runs the danger" for jurors "to place themselves in the shoes of the victim, and that is inappropriate."
The prosecutor not only disagreed, but she said, "We're also going to be heading into the Christmas holiday, and the time he chose to kill these two individuals and kidnap them was Dec. 20.
"He stuck with that time frame. There's nothing we can do to change the facts of these crimes. That was in Mr. Hirschfield's control."
Parisi suggested delaying the penalty phase into early next year, "so that direct connection" to Thanksgiving and Christmas "is not so strong to the jury."
The judge passed on that request. He ruled that Kim Gonsalves can testify that the last time she saw her daughter was "in November, around the holidays," with no direct mention of Thanksgiving.