The murder trial into the killings of two UC Davis students nearly 32 years ago went before jurors today when prosecution and defense lawyers launched their opening statements in Sacramento Superior Court.
Deputy District Attorney Dawn Bladet told the seven-man, five-woman panel that the DNA evidence combined with Richard Joseph Hirschfield's background of sexual violence and his connections to Davis and the area near Lake Natoma where the bodies of Sabrina Gonsalves and John Riggins were found should add up to a guilty verdict.
"All of those factors are going to lead you straight to the conclusion that this mystery is for one time, all and forevermore, solved," Bladet told the jury.
Defense attorney Linda Parisi cautioned the jury in her opening remarks to refrain from reaching a decision based on the emotion of the savage killing of the two UC Davis freshmen. Their bodies were found near Lake Natoma wrapped in duct tape and their throats slashed two days after their Dec. 20 abduction in Davis. Gonsalves had been sexually assaulted, police and prosecutors say.
Parisi decried what she characterized as broken links in the chain of custody of key pieces of evidence in the case -- most significantly, the presence of a semen stain on a blanket found in Riggins' van that Sacramento sheriff's investigators traced back to the 63-year-old defendant.
Gonsalves and Riggins, both 18, were abducted after attending a performance of the "Nutcracker" ballet in Davis and while they were on their way to a birthday party for Sabrina's sister.
The investigation into their deaths went cold for years until Davis police and the Yolo County District Attorney's Office targeted and charged four other suspects. The foursome was exonerated in early 1993 when DNA results from the semen stain on the blanket excluded all of the defendants as possible donors.
Improved DNA technology led investigators to HIrschfield a decade later, Bladet said. He was charged in 2004. The case has been delayed since then by years of pretrial motions focused on the DNA testing and efforts by Hirschfield's lawyers to base their defense on the old Yolo County prosecution of the four other one-time suspects.
Hirschfield is charged with four special circumstance allegations of murder by kidnapping, murder in the course of rape, murder in the course of oral copulation, and multiple murders. The Sacramento DA's office is seeking the death penalty. If he is convicted in the guilty phase of the trial, the penalty phase would follow immediately.
After Judge Michael W. Sweet issued his opening instructions to the jury today, one member of the panel began to ask a question about "the November ballot measure." Proposition 34 on the Nov. 6 ballot would eliminate the death penalty in California and would preclude the prosecution from pursuing capital punishment if the initiative passes and HIrschfield is convicted. The judge cut off the juror's questioning.
Testimony in the trial is scheduled to begin this afternoon, after Parisi concludes her opening statement.
Photo caption: Defense attorney Linda Parisi presents her opening statement on Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2012, in Sacramento Superior Court. Behind Parisi on the right is Richard Joseph Hirschfield, who is accused of killing Sabrina Gonsalves and John Riggins 32 years ago. Pool photograph