Woman convicted of killing 4 daughters has death penalty reversed

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A mother convicted of murdering her four children after purposefully burning down their Santa Clarita Valley home more than 20 years ago had the death penalty in her case reversed Monday.  

Sandi Dawn Nieves was sentenced to death approximately two years after she burned down her Cherry Creek Drive home on July 1, 1998, while all four of her daughters — Jaqlene Marie Folden, 5, Kristl Dawn Folden, 7, Rashel Hollie Nieves, 11, and Nikolet Amber Nieves, 12 — held a slumber party inside.  

Shortly before Nieves was sentenced to death in October 2000, the jury found prosecutors proved Nieves asked the girls to hold a slumber party in the kitchen that night, and while they were on top of their sleeping bags, the mother wrote letters to people detailing her plan to kill herself and her children.  

Nieves would go on to light a series of fires inside the home, using gasoline and burning items within the open oven in the kitchen. She survived the fire, along with her 14-year-old son, but all four girls died from smoke and carbon monoxide inhalation. 

The murder trial quickly gained national attention as details from that evening were revealed. The jury found Nieves guilty of four counts of first-degree murder and the attempted murder of her son, and found true the special circumstances that the defendant committed multiple murders and that each murder was committed while lying in wait and while engaged in the crime of arson. 

On Monday, the Supreme Court of California affirmed Nieves’ convictions but reversed the  death sentence due to the “trial court’s misconduct” more than 20 years ago, according to a ruling published Monday.  

The state’s high court ruled that, due to the judge’s “pervasive mistreatment of defense counsel that began at the outset of the trial,” the “trial court’s disdain for and distrust of defense counsel is inescapable.” 

“Although we conclude that the court’s misconduct could not have altered the jury’s guilt determination, we are unable to reach that conclusion regarding the penalty trial, thus finding prejudicial misconduct that requires reversal of the penalty judgment.”  

In total, the Supreme Court found or assumed that the original trial had a total of seven errors that led to their decision to stay the death penalty, ranging from prejudicial misconduct by the court to exclusion of the defense’s expert testimony and evidence.  

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