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Davis Enterprise, The (CA)

Hirschfield ordered to stand trial
He will answer on all charges in '80 slayings

   Joel Davis

Special to the Enterprise

Published: March 18, 2007
SACRAMENTO — After a complex and compelling preliminary hearing that stretched into three months, Richard Joseph Hirschfield on Friday was held to answer on all charges in the 1980 slayings of John Riggins and Sabrina Gonsalves.

Hirschfield, 58, took notes and showed no emotion as Judge Trena H. Burger-Plavan bound him over for trial in the brutal murders of the 18-year-old UC Davis sweethearts, who were abducted in Davis and found dead in a Rancho Cordova ravine in December 1980. He is scheduled to be arraigned Thursday in Sacramento Superior Court for a trial that likely won't get started until 2008 at the earliest.

Burger-Plavan displayed an attention to detail, unwavering patience and an almost regal presence that kept both sides in line as she presided over a tricky preliminary hearing with more than 1,400 pages of transcripts and several witnesses.

Addressing everything from the evidence-handling to the legality of a post-DNA match in 2002 linking Hirschfield to the crime, she cited case law on Friday as she denied one motion after another by the defense, most of them having to do with the special circumstances calling for the death penalty if Hirschfield is convicted of the murder of Riggins and the rape and murder of Gonsalves.

"The court finds that it is inferable from the evidence in this case that the defendant had concurrent goals of kidnapping the victims, sexually assaulting one of the victims, as evidenced by the duct-taping of (Riggins') legs but not the female (Gonsalves), and then killing both of them," the judge noted.

The hearing included everything from the details of Gonsalves' autopsy and DNA evidence to the legality of jail searches to prior crimes by the defendant to media-access issues.

The most startling evidence unveiled to the public concerned the search of the Washington state prison cell where Hirschfield was serving time for a child-molestation conviction that has since been overturned on appeal.

The search, conducted by a McNeil Island (Wash.) Corrections Center official in November 2002 because Sacramento detectives only had a warrant to get DNA samples from Hirschfield, allegedly yielded a California map with the name "Sabrina" and the words "Davis" and "Sacto" pinned to it.

The cell search, which the defense contends was a violation of the defendant's Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures, also yielded "a cross between a journal and a story" that described an older man and younger people camping in the woods, a journal whose contents the jail official said made her "uncomfortable."

The preliminary hearing, which started Jan. 23, determined there is enough evidence to force the defendant to stand trial. Unlike a jury trial, which finds guilt beyond a reasonable doubt in convictions, the "prelim" uses the "probable cause" legal standard, deciding whether there is enough evidence to proceed with a trial.

Despite impassioned, informed and at times seemingly interminable arguments by Hirschfield's three-person legal team, Judge Burger-Plavan methodically denied one defense motion after another on Friday.

One of the more noteworthy rulings sided with the prosecution's contention that one of the death-penalty special circumstances applies to Riggins, who was beaten but not sexually assaulted.

"Even though victim Riggins was not a personal victim of sexual assault, the evidence shows there is a rational ground to believe he was present when the assault took place on Ms. Gonsalves," the judge ruled. "And probably to prevent his going to the police over the matter, (Hirschfield) allegedly chose to kill victim Riggins. This is exactly the type of conduct that the rape/murder special circumstance serves to encompass, and because both victims were killed, a rape/murder special circumstance can attach to each murder count."

Burger-Plavan bound Hirschfield over for trial without considering the suicide note of Joe Hirschfield, Richard Hirschfield's younger brother who killed himself after being confronted by detectives about the murders following the 2002 DNA match. The note, admitted as evidence after the parts implicating the defendant were redacted, indicates that Joe Hirschfield was present for the murders but that Richard Hirschfield committed them.

"The court has not considered in any way the suicide note left by Joseph Hirschfield," the judge noted. "The court has found some rational ground to believe that defendant (Richard) Hirschfield committed each of the crimes, the allegations and special circumstances alleged without considering in any way the contents of the suicide note or the testimony relating thereto."

The suicide note is one of many hot-button issues that legal experts say make this case unique to the point where it may eventually set legal standards.

Both victims' parents attended the hearing at various times, but were absent Friday. Attending on their behalf and in support were a handful of friends, most of them Davis retirees who attended regularly.

Although he comes from a large family, there was no evidence that any supporters of Hirschfield attended any of the hearing.

Hirschfield has been in two jailhouse scuffles since his August 2004 arrest, and is segregated from the general Sacramento jail population.

— Joel Davis is a Sacramento writer. Reach him at

Copyright, 2007, The Davis Enterprise. All Rights Reserved.

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