In what could be a watershed moment in the Davis "sweethearts" murder trial, a judge today denied a motion by defense lawyers to delay the case to mid-June.
Jury selection is currently scheduled to begin on March 19 for defendant Richard Hirschfield, who is accused in the Dec. 20, 1980, stabbing deaths of UC Davis students John Riggins and Sabrina Gonsalves.
Defense attorneys Linda Parisi and Ken Schaller asked Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael W. Sweet to move the case back to give them more time to nail down a commitment from a mitigation expert they intend to hire if the Hirschfield case proceeds to the death penalty phase.
HIrschfield, 63, was arrested and charged in 2004 in the case in which prosecutors are seeking the death penalty on the special allegations of multiple murders and murders during the course of a sexual assault.
Parisi said outside court today that the defense team erred in not obtaining a mitigation expert earlier in the proceedings. She said in court that she and Schaller are currently in contact with an expert in the Bay Area but that he couldn't assure them that he will be available to work the HIrschfield case until he knows whether the trial could be delayed until June.
Mitigation experts are mandated under a U.S. Supreme Court decision for death penalty defenses. Among their responsibilities are investigating the social history of the defendant to be presented to jurors during the penalty phase of the bifurcated capital punishment trials.
Sweet said that litigation over the pretrial motions in the case in all likelihood will push jury selection beyond the scheduled March 19 date. But he declined to set a new trial date, saying that they can start calling in jury panels as soon as they get the pretrial motions resolved.
"We need to keep moving," Sweet said from the bench.
Ginger Swigart, the aunt of Sabrina Gonsalves, said the families of the two 18-year-old victims welcomed the judge's decision in the case that is now more than 31 years old.
"There is light at the end of the tunnel," Swigart said.