Three of Richard Joseph Hirschfield's high school classmates testified Thursday the convicted sex murderer was a highly intelligent youngster but acutely self-conscious of his lower social status and frustrated by his failure to break into the ranks of the popular kids.
"My assessment was that Richard had a very serious desire to be well-liked," said Ernest Hubbard Jr., who, along with Hirschfield, was a member of the Colusa High School class of 1967. When other kids shunned him, "It troubled him greatly," Hubbard said, "and he would become very, very emotional about this. There was a strong emotional component to being frustrated and not having any way out" of the relative poverty of his youth.
Hubbard said he once walked with Hirschfield up Market Street in downtown Colusa, below the levee that held back the Sacramento River. Hubbard said they spoke like "16-year-old philosophers, wondering what we wanted to do with our lives." When Hubbard put the question to Hirschfield, he said his friend responded, "I don't know but when I die, I want people to remember me."
The 63-year-old defendant has gained notoriety for his conviction in one of the most ghastly crimes in the Sacramento region in more than a quarter-century.
On Thursday, Hubbard and the two other Colusa High acquaintances testified for the defense in the penalty phase of Hirschfield's murder trial.
In the guilt phase, he was convicted of first-degree murder in the throat-slashing murders of 18-year-old UC Davis sweethearts John Riggins and Sabrina Gonsalves, with special circumstances of multiple murders, murder during the course of kidnapping and murder during the commission of a sexual attack on Gonsalves.
A Sacramento Superior Court jury is being asked to decide whether Hirschfield should be executed or spend the rest of his life in prison with no chance of parole.
In his testimony, Hubbard said he often "intellectually engaged" with the young Hirschfield but found him "somewhat isolated from other people."
Another high school friend, Steve Cordorniz, also recognized Hirschfield's intellect, along with the other side of a kid who considered himself an outcast.
Cordorniz testified he thought that when Hirschfield grew up, "He'd run NASA or wind up in prison." Hirschfield could have made out all right "if he got the breaks," Cordorniz said. If not, "he wouldn't go far," the witness said.
Hirschfield's cousin, Robert Gomes, confirmed the defendant's rough start in life after his mother became pregnant at age 14 by her stepfather. Then Hirschfield's mother and father married and had five more children.
Occasionally his dad had to check in on the mother to protect her from her abusive husband, Gomes said.
Defense attorneys Thursday also called UC San Francisco associate professor Dr. Douglas Tucker, a psychiatrist, to testify about what he determined was Hirschfield's damaged brain. Tucker never examined Hirschfield. He based his findings on the tests conducted by a University of Pennsylvania neuropsychologist.
Tucker testified that Hirschfield has "grossly abnormal" functioning of the inner parts of his brain that regulate his "emotional processing."
At the same time, Tucker said, Hirschfield's executive-level functioning is less able to control his behavior. The result is a "neurologically based impairment" that restricted his ability "to learn from punishment." It all added up to make Hirschfield anti-social, Tucker testified.
The defense is expected to conclude its penalty phase case on Monday, with Judge Michael W. Sweet scheduling arguments for Wednesday before the jury decides Hirschfield's sentence.
Editor's Note: This story has been changed from an earlier version to correct familial relationships among the Hirschfield clan. Corrected on Nov. 30, 2012.