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Jury Recommends Death Penalty for Sandi Nieves

Verdict: After one day of deliberating, jurors decide on execution for the mother who set a fire that killed her four daughters.

August 10, 2000|CAITLIN LIU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Agreeing on punishment as swiftly as they did on guilt, 12 San Fernando jurors Wednesday found that Sandi Nieves deserves to die for the murders of her four daughters.

Hiding her face, the Santa Clarita woman who murdered her four daughters and tried to kill her son two years ago sat stoically as the verdict of execution was delivered after just one day of deliberations.

She broke down crying after she was led out of the courtroom, her lawyer said.

Nieves, 36, will be the 12th woman on California's death row if she is sentenced to death by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge L. Jeffrey Wiatt, who is expected to uphold the jury's verdict. The last time a woman received a death sentence in the state was in San Diego County in October.

"We're very happy with today's verdict," said Fernando Nieves, father of two of the dead girls and the teenage boy who survived the house fire set by their mother. "The jury never lost focus of what this trial was all about--it was about four innocent little girls."

Eyes gleaming with tears, the father said he would like to watch his ex-wife's execution.

Under California law, the case will automatically be appealed to the state Supreme Court.

During a trial that lasted three months, prosecutors established that Nieves wanted to take revenge against the men in her life. She told her children they were having a slumber party, had them sleep together in the kitchen, and then started a fire.

Jaqlene and Kristl Folden, 5 and 7, and Rashel and Nikolet Folden-Nieves, 11 and 12, died of smoke inhalation. David Nieves, who was 14 at the time, was also in the house but survived. Now 16, he testified against his mother during the trial. He told the jury that he and his sisters woke up choking on smoke, but that their mother would not let them leave the burning house.

Deputy Public Defender Howard Waco contended that at the time of the blaze, Nieves was in a legally unconscious, sleepwalking-like state induced by a combination of hormonal imbalance, stress and an adverse reaction to prescription drugs.

The jury of five women and seven men found Nieves guilty of four counts of first-degree murder, attempted murder and arson on July 27, after one day of deliberating.

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"Given the facts and the circumstances of the crimes, this is the only appropriate verdict," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Beth Silverman. "The mother who deliberately killed her children to exact revenge--that's a horrible crime."

Added Deputy Dist. Atty. Kenneth Barshop: "How do you forgive someone who did the unforgivable?"

Free to talk publicly for the first time Wednesday, all the jurors shunned the news media and Nieves' attorney. But they invited prosecutors and the victims' families to join them in the jury room, where they shared doughnuts and cookies.

Outside San Fernando Superior Court, some jurors hugged before going their separate ways.

An alternate juror, a crime scene photographer for the LAPD who declined to give his name, said: "We did our civic duty. That's all we can be held accountable for."

But their quick, unanimous decisions on Nieves' guilt and punishment spoke louder than any words, prosecutors said.

Waco said he was disappointed, but that it was understandable because he wasn't permitted to present all the evidence he had hoped to during the trial.

"The court seemed to have rulings which were very consistently favoring the prosecution," Waco said.

During the trial, prosecutors and Waco fought bitterly over evidence, each accusing the other of impropriety. Wiatt repeatedly sanctioned Waco, mostly for making improper objections or statements, and slapped him with thousands of dollars in fines.

Waco, in turn, repeatedly filed motions to remove Wiatt from the trial, alleging that the judge was biased against him. In his own court filings, Wiatt denied Waco's charges and stated that his rulings conformed with the law.

But on Wednesday, Wiatt announced he was wiping out thousands of dollars in monetary sanctions he had imposed on the defense attorney, except the first one--a $500 fine for failure to comply with discovery rules.

Waco said he planned to appeal that fine.

With tears in his eyes outside the courthouse, David Folden, father of the two younger dead girls, said it didn't matter to him whether Sandi Nieves--who was his stepdaughter before he married, then divorced her--lived or died.

"I have to deal with my life without my daughters," Folden said. "The pain never goes away."

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