Two moms, a dad, a brother and two sisters filled out the picture in a Sacramento courtroom Monday of a pair of young people who for 32 years have been known mostly for the horrific way they died.
It was up to the families of John Riggins and Sabrina Gonsalves to tell the story of how they lived and how their murders shook their loved ones to their marrow.
Richard Joseph Hirschfield's Dec. 20, 1980, murders of the 18-year-old UC Davis sweethearts strained the family members' belief in themselves, the parents of the victims told a Sacramento Superior Court jury as the penalty phase began in the trial of the 63-year-old defendant.
"A parent protects their children, and we couldn't protect him there was just no way," John Riggins' mother, Cecelia, testified. "I've lived with that nightmare every day. I haven't slept a night without awakening at 2 or 3 in the morning and thinking about John and Sabrina, and there was nothing we could do."
The jury convicted Hirschfield Nov. 5 on two counts of murder, with special-circumstance allegations of multiple murders and murder during the course of kidnapping and sexual assault. It now must decide whether he should be executed or sentenced to life in prison without parole.
The families testified to give the jury a sense of their loss, of who the victims were, as a factor in the upcoming life-or-death decision.
Riggins' family described him as a terrific athlete who made the varsity soccer team at UC Davis as a freshman. He wanted to study medicine and engineering and maybe invent a device to connect brain electricity to artificial limbs to allow the paralyzed to walk. He backpacked in Yosemite. He worked part time for the city of Davis' park district. His younger brother idolized him.
Sabrina Gonsalves, the daughter of an Army lieutenant colonel and his wife, grew up all over the United States and a little bit of Europe, too, her family said. She earned straight A's in high school and was offered a scholarship to UC Berkeley but chose Davis because her two older sisters studied there and she wanted to be close to them.
She loved animals and horses and kids and wanted to have six children of her own. She studied to be an occupational therapist or a pediatric nurse but also considered veterinary medicine.
Their deaths five days before Christmas have since ruined the holiday season for the Riggins and Gonsalves families. They noted in their testimony the killings also took place on the wedding anniversary of Dr. Richard and Cecilia Riggins and two days before the birthday of one of Sabrina's older sisters, Andrea Rosenstein, whose party the couple were headed to when they were abducted and slain. The last time Kim Gonsalves saw her daughter alive was on Thanksgiving, turning last week's holiday into another terrible memory.
Pain and anger "a lot of anger" and depression have marked her life since her daughter's death, Kim Gonsalves testified. She considered suicide. Although she rejected that notion, she hasn't been able to understand the reaction of some people to the news of the murders.
"I'd go to the grocery store and people would duck down in the aisles," Kim Gonsalves said, describing a stigma attached to her and her daughter. "They like to blame the victim. They like to think you are a drug addict who deserved what happened."
She said "it ripped my heart out; it killed me," and it led to depression and anxiety and a deterioration in her husband's health.
Sabrina's eldest sister, Terese Atallah, said "the loss is irreparable." Andrea Rosenstein, Sabrina's middle sister, said of her mindset, "You just wait for something bad to happen."
Robert Riggins talked about losing "the guiding light of my life" when his brother was killed.
Richard Riggins loops back to a sense of helplessness and guilt over the loss of his son.
"Visualizing the way he died, his head wrapped in tape, his throat cut, trying to get air for himself from the wound in the neck as you've seen, knowing he's dying and I wasn't there I failed in my biggest duty to him," he said. "I feel very guilty about that. I know it's irrational but there's that basic duty of getting your child into adult life, and I didn't do that."
Deputy District Attorney Dawn Bladet is expected to conclude her case when the penalty phase resumes on Thursday. Besides the victim impact, she also elicited testimony Monday from a female relative of Hirschfield's who said he molested her twice when she was a little girl.
Bladet, in her opening statement in the penalty phase, reminded the jury of Hirschfield's prior felony convictions for rape and child molestation. She asked the jury to keep them in mind, along with the gruesome throat-slashing killings of Riggins and Gonsalves, the sexual attack on Sabrina as well as the impact on the families.
"There will be one decision, one decision to make," Bladet said. "The right, just and moral decision is going to be that this crime, these murders, and this defendant deserve death."
Defense attorney Linda Parisi told the jury at the outset of her statement, "we are disappointed in your verdict" in convicting Hirschfield, a decision that took the panel only a few hours to deliver. She said regardless of the jury's decision in the penalty phase, Herschfield will die in prison, either by lethal execution or natural causes.
Parisi told the jury Hirschfield had a chaotic childhood that began when his mother at age 14 was impregnated by her stepfather, whom she later married. The defense begins its penalty-phase case on Thursday.
"So we will ask you ultimately to consider these factors when when you make the decision about what is the appropriate penalty," Parisi said, "whether or not to condemn Mr. Hirschfield to death or whether or not the correct moral decision is that he stays in prison for the rest of his life, and he dies in it."