An attorney representing a Santa Clarita woman on death row for murdering her four young daughters in an arson fire at the family’s home told the California Supreme Court Tuesday that his client didn’t get a fair trial, while a lawyer for the state countered that her conviction and death sentence should be upheld.
Calling it “an extreme case,” Sandi Dawn Nieves’ appellate attorney told the state’s highest court that the trial court “aligned itself with the prosecution, assisted with the prosecution, it denigrated the defense, it denigrated the defense counsel, it humiliated the defendant,” and that Superior Court Judge L. Jeffrey Wiatt “lost control of himself” and the court the more he tried to control the proceedings during the woman’s trial.
“I think that what happened here was you had this embroilment between the two and it basically got out of control,” attorney Amitai Schwartz told the high court, noting that he believed the judge should have granted one of the defense’s numerous motions for a mistrial.
Under questioning by some of the Supreme Court justices about the frequent wrangling between the judge and Nieves’ trial lawyer during the trial, Deputy Attorney General Kristen Inberg countered that there was “no misconduct” and that the judge exercised his authority to “control the proceedings to ensure a fair trial for both sides as the defendant’s then-attorney “consistently flouted” the court’s rules.
The deputy attorney general — who urged the panel to uphold Nieves’ conviction and death sentence — said that the evidence was “overwhelming” that the defendant had carefully planned and intentionally set the fire that killed her daughters, and that the “evidence of appellant’s guilt was just too strong to have any of these comments (by the judge) influence the jury.”
Nieves, now 56, was convicted of murder for the July 1, 1998, deaths of Jaqlene Marie Folden, 5, Kristl Dawn Folden, 7, Rashel Hollie Nieves, 11, and Nikolet Amber Nieves, 12, who died from inhaling soot, smoke and carbon monoxide.
Jurors also found true the special circumstance allegations of multiple murders, murder while lying in wait and murder during an arson, along with convicting her of one count each of arson and the attempted murder of her son, David, who testified against her. She was sentenced to death in 2000.
“I love my son,” she said shortly before the death sentence was handed down. “If I could take back time, if I could do things better, if I was smarter, if I had time before everyone passed out, we would have gotten out of that house.”
Thetrial judge was unswayed, saying the woman “betrayed the trust of her children by convincing them they were to have a family slumber party.”
Wiatt noted at the sentencing that Nieves set a series of fires with gasoline throughout the house and that the children begged to be allowed to go outside, adding that she ignored one daughter’s plea to go to the bathroom to vomit and told her instead to be sick in the kitchen.
“The defendant very clearly had in mind that her children would die,” the judge said then. “She was staging this multiple murder as her final act of revenge to the men in her life.”
Nieves’ trial attorney, Deputy Public Defender Howard Waco, contended that the judge should not have barred him from telling the jury that Nieves allegedly had a brain abnormality that affected her ability to make judgments during periods of stress.
Deputy District Attorney Beth Silverman countered that the death penalty was the only appropriate verdict given the magnitude of the crimes.
“She killed four children and would have killed a fifth. But by the grace of God he survived,” the prosecutor said. “It would be less horrific, less unimaginable, if you had a stranger come into the home in the middle of the night.”
Silverman pointed out that Nieves told her children to stay in the house after setting the fires.
Nieves’ two former husbands attended her sentencing, but did not speak.