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Marcos Breton: Grisly crime makes the case for reforming California death penalty

Published: Monday, Jan. 28, 2013 - 9:15 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Thursday, Apr. 18, 2013 - 7:45 pm

What is it going to take to revive the death penalty in California and to begin exacting punishment on those who deserve the ultimate sentence?

It was a question that cried out of a Sacramento courtroom Friday as Richard Hirschfield – yet another murderer devoid of humanity – was sentenced to receive a lethal injection no one believed would ever be administered. Not in a state where capital punishment has been suspended since 2006.

That is not justice considering the details of Hirschfield's abduction and murder of a teenage couple in unspeakable ways that cannot be fully described in a family newspaper. It is not justice considering that a majority of Californians support the death penalty and voted two months ago to defeat a well-funded initiative to repeal it.

It is not justice considering that Hirschfield's judgment day came a full 32 years after he killed Sabrina Marie Gonsalves and John Harold Riggins. Both were 18 and students at UC Davis in 1980 when their innocent lives intersected with Hirschfield on a foggy night that has haunted their loved ones ever since.

Words cannot fully account for the physical, spiritual and psychological damage Hirschfield's crimes exacted on the families of two young people forever dubbed "The Davis Sweethearts" in media stories stretching across six U.S. presidencies.

Some loved ones in this case stopped celebrating Christmas. The murders – on Dec 20, 1980 – took place on the wedding anniversary of John Riggins' mom and dad – an occasion they stopped celebrating after their son was found in a muddy Folsom ditch near the body of his beloved girlfriend.

Both kids had been bound and gagged in duct tape, their throats slashed. Hirschfield sexually assaulted Gonsalves and these two poor souls undoubtedly experienced pain and terror in their final moments that no one would want to imagine in a nightmare – let alone in real life.

There are things Hirschfield did to their bodies that I can't convey to you. Frankly, that's part of the problem with the death penalty in California.

The details of death penalty cases are so unspeakable they are rarely disseminated in mainstream media. Instead, they are papered over with neutral words that blunt the full impact. This makes it easier for death penalty opponents to rationalize their feelings and base their arguments on abstract notions of justice – devoid of facts that haunt families and law enforcement officers.

Who wants to read about such depravity at any time of day, let alone as you drink your coffee and try to enjoy your paper on a Sunday morning?

But by not being explicit, we distort the truth. In the "Davis Sweethearts" case, evil stripped good, decent people of everything they were and everything they believed was true about life and justice.

It ingrained fear in the hearts of previously happy families and scarred even members of these families who weren't yet born when Hirschfield overpowered and abducted two kids in acting out some perverse fantasy.

So what can be done?

It's hard to imagine the state Legislature will ever work to reform the death penalty and speed up endless delay tactics. Liberal Democrats run the table in California and Republicans are irrelevant.

For years, a stream of death penalty reform bills died in the Senate Public Safety Committee.

The ACLU is certain to take another run at repealing the death penalty. The chief justice of California's Supreme Court has predicted it could take three more years to sort out lawsuits that stopped implementation of the death penalty in California in 2006.

But given that voters rejected a death penalty repeal effort, there is another debate worth having: Should the death penalty be reformed so that it can be used again?

McGregor Scott, the former U.S. attorney in Sacramento, said the way to do that would be for voters to approve using a single drug – a "one-drug protocol" – for executions. The federal judge who halted the state's executions in 2006 ruled that using multiple drugs could cause death row inmates to suffer inhumanely.

Scott said he and other death penalty supporters would spend 2013 raising money with the hope of putting death penalty reform before California voters next year.

Scott said the U.S. federal courts have already upheld the use of one drug for executions in Arizona.

"One of the commitments we made was if we prevailed last November that we would come back in 2014 with a package to reform the death penalty," said Scott, who worked against the repeal effort.

It's the other side of the argument from those who first create endless legal delays and then try to push for repeal because the delays are too expensive.

How about reforming the death penalty?

An honest death penalty debate is well worth having because evil lives in our world, whether we care to know about it or not.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Marcos Breton



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