The California Supreme Court has reversed the death penalty sentence on Monday for a Santa Clarita woman convicted of killing her four young daughters in 1998.
Sandi Dawn Nieves was convicted in 2000 of the first-degree murder of her daughters Naqlene Folden, 5; Kristl Folden, 7; Rashel Folden-Nieves, 11; and Nikolet Folden-Nieves, 12, and the attempted murder of her son, David, according to Supreme Court documents.
The jury found true the special circumstance allegations that the defendant committed multiple murders, and that each murder was committed while lying in wait and while engaged in the crime of arson.
Following the penalty phase of the trial, the jury returned a verdict of death. The trial court denied the defendant’s motion to modify the death penalty verdict and her motion for a new trial and sentenced her to death.
“We affirm Nieves’s convictions but reverse her death sentence due to the trial court’s misconduct,” said Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye in the opinion for the case.
The daughters were lying on sleeping bags on the kitchen floor and had all died of smoke inhalation. The oven was open with burned items inside and gasoline had been poured and lit in the hallway and bedrooms, according to court documents.
The father of David and Sandi Dawn Nieves’ two older daughters was her first husband Fernando Nieves.
Sandi Nieves had two daughters with her second husband, David Folden, who eventually adopted her three older children.
“Some years later, as (Sandi Nieves) was divorcing Folden, she had an affair with Fernando,” court documents said. “When he ended the affair, (Sandi Nieves) sent Fernando her will and life insurance policies and told him she wanted him to have custody of all the children if she died. Later, unhappy about the end of the affair, she sent an angry letter telling Fernando he could no longer have contact with her or the children.”
Sandi Nieves began seeing Scott Volk several months before the crime. They dated briefly before Volk ended the relationship. Upset over the breakup, Sandi Nieves threatened to commit suicide; she sent the children to stay with their fathers and wrote a suicide note but did not end her life.
The son testified that on the night of the fire, Sandi Nieves declared they would have a “slumber party” in the kitchen. He did not want to sleep in the kitchen but she insisted.
Sometime in the night during the fire, Sandi Nieves shook the son and his sisters to wake them up.
“She told them to breathe into their pillows and stay where they were because the fire could be coming from outside. (The son) lost consciousness, but later got up and could see his mother and sisters lying on the floor,” court documents said. “He lay down again and when he awoke it was light outside and his mother was up but did not answer when he asked what had happened.”
Trial Court Misconduct
The supreme court opinion said the trial judge “erroneously sustained objections to questions that sought to bolster the testimony of a chaplain attesting to (the) defendant’s remorse for the crimes; the judge also repeatedly and erroneously sustained objections to questions about defendant’s nonviolence and the value she brought to the lives of others.”
The “very act” of sustaining those objections “tended to mislead the jury” — by minimizing the defendant’s mitigating evidence and communicating that defendant’s valued attributes were “not worth considering,” according to court documents.
“The trial judge’s hostility and impatience with the defense were further evident in the judge’s erroneous exclusion of whole categories of mitigating evidence,” the opinion said.
The trial court also improperly instructed the jury to consider the “weight and significance” of the defendant’s failure to provide timely discovery concerning eight of twelve penalty phase witnesses — an error we earlier found harmless when viewed in isolation, according to the document.
“Because the trial court repeatedly chastised defense counsel and expressed doubts about the defense, however, the erroneous instruction and improper aggravating factor were apt to contribute to the perception that the defendant was manipulative and that her mitigating evidence was not to be trusted,” the opinion said.
Ultimately, the trial judge’s “conspicuous disdain for defense counsel and witnesses, and his repeated references to their improper or untrustworthy conduct,” lent credence to the prosecution’s argument that the defendant was manipulative and deceitful. These were the very characteristics the prosecution highlighted to justify the death penalty, according to the supreme court opinion.
“The trial judge effectively threw ‘the weight of his judicial position’ behind the prosecution’s case and erroneously excluded relevant and potentially beneficial mitigating evidence, thus ‘undermining the defense theory of the case,’” the opinion said.
“We rely on a capital sentencing jury to ‘confront and examine the individuality of the defendant” and consider any ‘compassionate or mitigating factors stemming from the diverse frailties of humankind,” the supreme court opinion added.
That critical function was compromised here, where “numerous instances of misconduct created an atmosphere of unfairness and were likely to have led the jury to conclude that ‘the trial court found the People’s case against (the) defendant to be strong and (defendant)’s evidence to be questionable, at best.”
“It is not difficult to imagine the horror a jury might feel in response to (the) defendant’s actions. Nonetheless, a juror could regard the stunning enormity of the crime, and the fact that (the) defendant intended to take her own life, as a sign of significant mental instability,” the opinion said.
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. A juror might also have given greater weight to the defendant’s remorse and evidence she had been a loving mother to conclude that life in prison, confronted each day with what she had done to her children, was a fitting punishment, according to the supreme court documents.
“Although we cannot be certain the jury would have reached a different verdict in the absence of the judge’s commentary, we are unable to say the penalty verdict was ‘surely unattributable’ to the trial court’s misconduct. Instead, we find a ‘reasonable possibility that the outcome would have been different without the weight of judicial authority favoring the prosecution and hence we must set aside the judgment of death,” the opinion said.
The supreme court reversed the death sentence and affirmed the judgment in all other respects, according to the document.
Vineland Boys Gang Member Sentenced To 31 Years Racketeering, Attempted Murder
A member of the San Fernando Valley-based Vineland Boys street gang was sentenced Thursday to 372 months in federal prison for committing multiple felonies, including the attempted murders of three rival gangsters.
Jesus Gonzalez Jr., 28, “Lil Chito,” “Gunner” and “Chuy,” of Sun Valley, was sentenced by United States District Judge Michael W. Fitzgerald, according to the United States Attorney’s Office.
Gonzalez pleaded guilty on Jan. 22 to five felonies: one count of conspiracy to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, two counts of violent crime in aid of racketeering, one count of conspiracy to distribute controlled substances, and one count of discharging a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence.
According to court documents, to consolidate control over their “territory” in Sun Valley, North Hollywood and Burbank, the Vineland Boys shot and brutally assaulted rival gang members, controlled and conducted drug and firearms trafficking activity, and extorted money in the form of “taxes” from drug dealers, and trafficked narcotics.
Gonzalez conspired with Vineland Boys members and associates to engage in acts of racketeering in the form of attempted murder and drug trafficking. Gonzalez admitted that he was involved in multiple gang-related shootings, including a December 2015 shootout in South Los Angeles with rival gang members.
In early April 2016, Gonzalez shot and severely wounded one victim and injured others in a drive-by shooting outside a party in Sun Valley after Gonzalez believed the victim had insulted the Vineland Boys gang, according to the Department of Justice (DOJ).
A few weeks later, Gonzalez stalked and shot a rival gang member on Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood, firing several shots at close range at the victim, who survived. In May 2016, Gonzalez and other Vineland Boys members drove next to a vehicle in North Hollywood near Lankershim Boulevard, and Gonzalez confronted and shot the other vehicle’s passengers because he believed they were rival gang members.
Gonzalez also sold methamphetamine and illegally sold numerous firearms, including an AR-style rifle bearing no serial number – commonly known as a “ghost gun” – that he sold in May 2016 outside a McDonald’s restaurant in San Fernando.
In January 2019, a federal grand jury indicted 31 Vineland Boys members and associates. So far, prosecutors in this case have secured 17 convictions and multiple prison sentences exceeding 10 years, according to the DOJ.
Two San Fernando Valley Men Sentenced For Counterfeit Passport, Green Card Scheme
Two San Fernando Valley men who participated in an extensive scheme that produced and sold counterfeit identity documents – including United States passport cards, Social Security cards and driver’s licenses – each received federal prison sentences on Monday.
Carlos Ayala Hernandez, a.k.a. “Juan Juarez,” 45, of Granada Hills, was sentenced Monday to 30 months in federal prison by United States District Judge John F. Walter.
The other plaintiff in the case, Miguel Juarez Guerrero, 24, of Van Nuys, was also sentenced Monday to 20 months in prison, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Hernandez pleaded guilty on April 27 to one count of conspiracy to produce, transfer and possess false identification documents, and one count of being an illegal alien in possession of firearms.
Guerrero pleaded guilty on May 3 to one count of conspiracy to produce, transfer and possess false identification documents, and one count of producing false identification documents.
From January 2016 to January 2021, Hernandez, Guerrero and Nestor Perez, a.k.a. “Daniel Perez,” 32, of Van Nuys, operated an illegal business in which they manufactured and sold false identification documents.
These counterfeit documents included U.S. passport cards, lawful permanent resident cards, more commonly known as “green cards,” employment authorization document cards, Social Security cards, and driver’s licenses purporting to be from multiple states.
At the direction of – and in exchange for payment from – Hernandez and Guerrero, Perez manufactured the counterfeit identification documents at a Van Nuys apartment. Perez made the bogus documents using personal identifying information – including names, dates of birth and Social Security numbers – of real persons After manufacturing the phony documents, Perez provided them to Hernandez and Guerrero, who then sold the documents to others.
In January 2021, law enforcement executed search warrants on Hernandez’s residence and the Van Nuys apartment. In Hernandez’s residence – where Guerrero also lived – law enforcement found firearms, assorted ammunition and $40,483 generated from the false identification document scheme.
At the Van Nuys apartment, officers also found a robust counterfeit document lab, including approximately 243 completed false identification documents, approximately 1,000 fraudulent authentication seals, 14 printers, a scanner and an ultraviolet light used to test the security features on counterfeit ID documents.
Hernandez, a Mexican national, admitted in his plea agreement that he knew he was an illegal alien in the United States, including during the times he possessed the firearms.
Perez pleaded guilty on April 12 to one count of conspiracy to produce, transfer and possess false identification documents, and one count of producing false identification documents. His sentencing hearing is scheduled for July 19.
Three Encino Residents Found Guilty Of $18 Million In COVID-19 Loan Fraud
A federal jury has found three Encino residents guilty of criminal charges for scheming to submit fraudulent loan applications seeking millions of dollars in COVID-19 relief funds.
Richard Ayvazyan, 42, Marietta Terabelian, 37, and Artur Ayvazyan, 41, were found guilty at the conclusion of an eight-day trial on Monday, according to the United States Attorney’s Office.
All defendants were found guilty of one count of conspiracy to commit bank fraud and wire fraud, 11 counts of wire fraud, eight counts of bank fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering.
Additionally, Richard Ayvazyan was found guilty of two counts of aggravated identity theft. Artur Ayvazyan also was found guilty of one count of aggravated identity theft. Vahe Dadyan also was found guilty of one count of money laundering.
On June 28, the jury found the defendants must forfeit bank accounts, jewelry, watches, gold coins, three residential properties and approximately $450,000 in cash.
According to the evidence presented at trial, the defendants used fake, stolen and synthetic identities – including the created identities of “Iuliia Zhadko” and “Viktoria Kauichko” – to submit fraudulent applications for PPP and EIDL loans guaranteed by the Small Business Administration (SBA) under federal law.
In support of the fraudulent applications, the defendants often submitted false and fictitious documents to lenders and the SBA, including fake identity documents, tax documents and payroll records, prosecutors said.
The defendants then used the fraudulently obtained funds as down payments on luxury homes in Tarzana, Glendale and Palm Desert. They also used the funds to buy gold coins, diamonds, jewelry, luxury watches, fine imported furnishings, designer handbags, clothing, and a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
The conspirators obtained more than $18 million in COVID-relief funds, according to the DOJ.
United States District Judge Stephen V. Wilson has scheduled a Sept. 13 sentencing hearing, at which time each defendant will face decades in federal prison.