The death penalty for the California mother who killed her four daughters on fire

Pictured: Sandi Nieves in 2018

Pictured: Sandi Nieves in 2018

A woman convicted more than 20 years ago of murdering her four young daughters in a house fire has been overturned by the California Supreme Court.

The court overturned Sandi Nieves’ death sentence on Monday, citing “ misconduct ” by the court, but upheld the 57-year-old’s conviction for the 1998 murders.

In a 143-page ruling, the state’s highest court said late Superior Court judge L. Jeffrey Wiatt “ made inappropriately disparaging and sarcastic remarks against counsel, disputed his performance, punished him for inappropriate conduct and punishment, and the jury ‘.

The trial judge also addressed inappropriate comments and questions to witnesses, openly questioning the credibility of a defense expert by asking argumentative and hostile questions and noting the possibility that another defense expert “ just doesn’t know what he’s talking about, ” Chief Justice . Tani Gorre Cantil-Sakauye wrote in the court’s unanimous decision.

She added, “In the penalty phase, the judge unnecessarily reprimanded and belittled a lay witness who testified before the defense.”

The ruling stated: “ While we conclude that the court’s misconduct could not have altered the jury’s guilt assessment, we cannot reach that conclusion in relation to the criminal case, thus finding adverse misconduct that requires reversal of the criminal sentence. ‘

Nieves (center, back) is depicted with her four daughters, who died in the fire, and her son, who survived [File photo]

Nieves (center, back) is depicted with her four daughters, who died in the fire, and her son, who survived [File photo]

It is not clear whether the penalty phase of the trial could be retried based on the court ruling.

The Los Angeles district attorney’s office has yet to comment on the ruling, but state attorney George Gascon issued a directive shortly after being sworn in in December saying that a death sentence was “ at least never a appropriate solution ‘.

Nieves was convicted of first-degree murder for the deaths of her daughters Jaqlene Marie Folden, 5, Kristl Dawn Folden, 7, Rashel Hollie Nieves, 11, and Nikolet Amber Nieves, 12.

The girls died from the inhalation of soot, smoke and carbon monoxide, ABC 7 Los Angeles reported.

Jurors also convicted Nieves for the attempted murder of her son, David, as well as the “ special circumstances charges ” of multiple murders, murder while she lay in wait, and murder in an arson attack.

She was sentenced to death in 2000.

Evidence that defendant deliberately set fire to murder her family included testimony she planned in advance to coerce her children [to] sleeping together on the kitchen floor, wrote letters indicating she intended to kill herself and her children, drove to the post office to mail her letters, and intentionally poured and poked gasoline all over the house, ” the Supreme Court ruling said .

It’s not hard to imagine what horror a jury might feel in response to the defendant’s actions. Nevertheless, a juror could view the astonishing scale of the crime and the fact that the suspect intended to take her own life as a sign of significant mental instability, ” he said.

Without the judge’s persistent, disparaging remarks, a juror would have viewed these circumstances with greater compassion and concluded that the crime was a tragedy without the moral guilt to justify death.

The California Supreme Court overturned Sandi Nieves' death sentence on Monday, citing

The California Supreme Court overturned Sandi Nieves’ death sentence on Monday, citing “misconduct” by the court, but upheld the 57-year-old’s conviction for the murder of her four young daughters in 1998. Pictured: Supreme Court headquarters California [File photo]

A juror could also have given more weight to the defendant’s regret and evidence that she had been a loving mother to conclude that life in prison, faced every day with what she had done to her children, was an appropriate punishment. used to be.’

Amitai Schwartz, Nieves’ appellate attorney, said during a Supreme Court hearing in February that his client was not being given a fair trial.

He said the court had “joined in the prosecution” and “assisted in the prosecution.”

“It belittled the defense, it belittled the counsel, it humiliated the defendant,” Schwartz said, adding that the judge “lost control of itself.”

Deputy Attorney General Kristen Inberg told the Supreme Court that there had been “ no wrongdoing ” during the trial and said the judge’s actions against the defendant’s trial attorney were because the attorney “ consistently ignored ” the court’s rules.

Inberg urged the panel to uphold Nieves’ conviction and death sentence, saying that “ the evidence of appellant’s guilt was simply too strong to warrant any of these. [the judge’s] comments influence the jury. ‘