Death Penalty Verdict Overturned Due to Behavior of Judge

The unanimous court found the judge’s disparaging remarks toward a defense lawyer and hostile questioning of defense witnesses may have biased jurors during the penalty phase of a murder trial.

(CN) — The California Supreme Court on Monday upheld the murder conviction of a Los Angeles woman who killed her four daughters in a house fire, but overturned her death sentence after finding a judge acted unfairly at trial.

In a 7-0 ruling, the court concluded that Superior Court Judge L. Jeffrey Wiatt may have biased jurors by disparaging defendant Sandi Dawn Nieves’ public defender in front of the jury during a murder trial in 2000. The judge accused the public defender of wasting “valuable court time” and called his questions “ridiculous” and “nonsensical,” among other belittling remarks.

The state’s high court also found the judge wrongly excluded testimony by a neuropsychologist about Nieves’ mental state during the penalty phase of the trial.

Nieves was 35 years old in early July 1998 when she set her Santa Clarita house on fire after telling her son and four daughters they would have a “slumber party” in the kitchen. Twice divorced and dealing with a bad breakup, she told witnesses she had regrets about getting an abortion about a week before the fire.

Her ex-husband had recently filed paperwork to revoke his adoption and child support of her three older children. That made her “furious,” her ex-husband testified. On the day of the fire, she sent a letter to her ex stating, “Now you don’t have to support any of us! FUCK YOU you are scum,” the ruling recounted.

Nieves’ son, then 14, survived the fire. He testified Nieves told her children to breathe into their pillows and stay where they were because the fire could be coming from outside. Her four daughters, ages 5-12, were later found dead from smoke inhalation, lying in sleeping bags on the kitchen floor. An oven was found open with burned debris inside and gasoline had been poured and lit in the hallways and bedrooms.

In a 146-page opinion, California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye wrote that jurors may have viewed Nieves as a sympathetic figure given the difficulties she was facing in her life when the crime occurred.

“Absent the trial judge’s persistent, disparaging remarks, a juror might have viewed these circumstances with greater sympathy and concluded the crime was a tragedy lacking the moral culpability to warrant death,” Cantil-Sakauye wrote.

The defense argued the guilty verdict should be overturned based on the judge’s behavior toward defense counsel and comments casting doubt on the credibility of key defense witnesses. The high court faulted the trial judge for “inexcusably hostile questioning and commentary” during a psychiatrist’s testimony about Nieves’ mental state.

However, the high court found that expert’s testimony was unlikely to change the jury’s mind. His claim that Nieves may have been delirious when the crime occurred was contradicted by evidence that she wrote letters, drove to the post office to mail them and “intentionally” poured and lit gasoline, Cantil-Sakauye said.

The panel also found the judge improperly told jurors the defense had violated discovery rules by failing to disclose evidence to the prosecution. But those missteps would not have altered the outcome of the verdict, the high court concluded.

“Regarding the guilt phase, we have held that the erroneous discovery violation instruction and limitation on expert testimony were harmless when considered individually,” Cantil-Sakauye wrote.

Cantil-Sakauye noted a trial judge can criticize attorneys for violating rules and court orders but must remain “temperate and impartial” in front of the jury.

The high court’s ruling means Los Angeles prosecutors can again seek the death penalty against Nieves in a new penalty-phase trial. But Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón has vowed not to request capital punishment in prosecutions. Gascón’s office did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment Monday.

Judge Wiatt fatally shot himself in 2005 while the subject of a child molestation investigation. He had been serving as a judge since 1993.

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