The penalty phase of the Richard Joseph Hirschfield murder trial began today with three family members of one of his victims telling the jury how the loss of John Riggins personally devastated them.
Dr. Richard Riggins testified he has never been able to fully forgive himself for failing to protect his 18-year-old son, who, along with the Sabrina Gonsalves, were abducted by HIrschfield Dec. 20, 1980, and killed after the defendant sexually assaulted Gonsalves.
"Visualizing the way he died, his head wrapped in tape, his throat cut, trying to get air for himself from the wound in the neck you've seen, knowing he's dying and I wasn't there -- I failed in my biggest duty to him," Riggins testified. "I feel very guilty about that. I know it's irrational... but there's that basic duty of getting your child into adult life, and I didn't do that."
Riggins and Gonsalves, freshman sweethearts at UC Davis, were both 18 when they were kidnapped after working on a producton of The Davis Children's Nutcracker. Their bodies were found two days later in a ditch near Lake Natoma, about 30 miles away.
Cecelia Riggins described the panic of her son's disappearance, her feeling of helplessness while friends searched for the couple. She said she and her family went numb when they learned the two had been murdered.
"I've lived that nightmare every day," she said. "I haven't slept a night without awakening at 2 or 3 in the morning and thinking about John and Sabrina, and there was nothing we could do."
Robert Riggins said the murder of his brother deprived him of "the guiding light of my life at that time." He said he never knew the full details of how his brother died until the Sacramento Superior Court trial, where photos of the victims' slashed throats were displayed for the jury.
"The fact they died in such a brutal manner, and struggled, made it so much harder," Robert Riggins said.
Deputy District Attorney Dawn Bladet said in court she expects to conclude her presentation today. Gonsalves' family is expected to testify in the afternoon, along with a relative of Hirschfield who the prosecution says was molested as a little girl by the defendant.
It's not clear when the defense will begin. Defense attorney LInda Parisi told the jury she will ask it to spare Hirschfield's life due to the chaotic upbringing he had as the result of being born into a incestuous relationship between his mother and the woman's step-father who impregnated her when she was 14-years-old.
The same jury that will decide whether Hirschfield, 63, should be executed or sentenced to life in prison without parole, convicted him Nov. 5 in the Riggins and Gonsalves murders. The panel also sustained the special-circumstance allegations of multiple murders, murder during the course of a kidnapping and murder during a sexual assault that have exposed Hirschfield to the death penalty.