Calling the murders of four girls "cold, vicious and calculated," a judge Friday sentenced their mother, Sandi Nieves, to death, making her the 12th woman on California's death row.
"She betrayed the trust of her children," said Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge L. Jeffrey Wiatt, condemning the Santa Clarita woman for the "horrible and violent deaths" of her daughters, ages 5 to 12, after she set their house on fire.
Nieves, 36, hid her face behind white paper during the hearing. When asked if she had anything to say, she responded, "If I could take back time . . . if I was smarter . . . if I had time before everyone passed out, we would have gotten out of that house."
The mother of five was convicted July 27 of the first-degree murders of Jaqlene Folden, Kristl Folden, Rashel Folden-Nieves and Nikolet Folden-Nieves, who died of smoke inhalation. She was also found guilty of arson and the attempted murder of her son David, who was 14 at the time and survived the fire.
During the 3 1/2-month trial, prosecutors established that Nieves was financially desperate and angry at the men in her life. In the weeks before the murders, a boyfriend left her, and she was engaged in a child-support battle with an ex-husband.
On the night of June 30, 1998, Nieves told her five children to sleep in the kitchen, where she joined them. She then poured gasoline on the carpet and set it afire. In testimony against his mother, David said the children woke gagging from smoke, but Nieves ordered them to remain where they were.
"She was staging this multiple murder as the final revenge at the men in her life," Wiatt said.
Deputy Public Defender Howard Waco unsuccessfully argued that Nieves was not "legally conscious" at the time of the crime. Nieves, who testified in her own defense, said she had a flashback of holding a lighter in her hand, but otherwise had no idea what happened.
On Aug. 9, a jury recommended the death penalty for Nieves, and at least seven jurors and one alternate returned Friday to the San Fernando courtroom, occasionally casting an icy glance in her direction
Juror Bob Fisher of Van Nuys said during a break: "The mother, taking the lives of her children, it's just unthinkable."
Several jurors cried as they listened to Charlotte Nieves, stepmother of the two older girls, describe the suffering of her husband Fernando and Dave Folden, father of the two younger girls.
"My heart aches because of all the memories we didn't get to make," Charlotte Nieves said.
David Nieves, now 16, lives with his father, Fernando, and stepmother and did not appear in court Friday. The boy has refused all contact with his mother. "The mail he receives from jail, he throws in the trash," Fernando Nieves said.
Of the 12 women on California's death row, three others are from Los Angeles County. Maureen McDermott, a former nurse, was sentenced in 1990 for ordering the killing of her Van Nuys roommate to collect an insurance policy. In 1993, Catherine Thompson was sentenced for hiring a killer to murder her husband in Westwood. A year later, Mary Ellen Samuels was sent to death row by a Van Nuys judge for orchestrating the murders of her husband and the hit man she had hired to kill him.
The last woman executed by the state was Elizabeth Ann Duncan of Ventura, in 1962, for murdering her pregnant daughter-in-law.
On Friday, prosecutors said Nieves deserved death row. "We've yet to see her remorse," Silverman said. "Justice was served today."