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.
Porter Ranch Doctor Accused Of $6 Million Medicare Fraud
A Porter Ranch doctor was arrested Thursday on criminal health care fraud charges arising from her false home health certifications and related fraudulent billings to Medicare.
Lilit Gagikovna Baltaian, 58 operated two medical clinics in the Los Angeles area. From approximately January 2012 to July 2018, Baltaian allegedly falsely certified patients to receive home health care from at least four Los Angeles area home health agencies, according to the Department of Justice (DOJ).
Baltaian’s false certifications were used by the home health agencies to fraudulently bill Medicare for unnecessary home health care.
The doctor allegedly received a cash benefit related to these referrals and also submitted claims to Medicare for signing the fraudulent certifications and for patient visits and injections that were not needed, according to prosecutors.
As further alleged in court documents, between January 2012 and July 2018, four home health agencies used Baltaian’s false certifications to submit fraudulent claims to Medicare, resulting in a total of approximately $6,029,674 paid on those claims.
Baltaian is charged with four counts of health care fraud. If convicted, Baltaian faces a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison on each count. A federal district court judge will determine any sentence after considering the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.
Assistant Attorney General Nicholas L. McQuaid of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division; Acting U.S. Attorney Tracy L. Wilkison of the Central District of California; Assistant Director in Charge Kristi Koons Johnson of the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office; and Special Agent in Charge Timothy DeFrancesca of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Inspector General’s (HHS-OIG) Los Angeles Regional Office made the announcement.
The FBI and HHS-OIG are investigating the case, which was charged as part of the Medicare Fraud Strike Force, under the supervision of the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California.
The Fraud Section leads the Medicare Fraud Strike Force. Since its inception in March 2007, the Medicare Fraud Strike Force, which maintains 15 strike forces operating in 24 districts, has charged more than 4,200 defendants who have collectively billed the Medicare program nearly $19 billion.
Trial Attorney Emily Culbertson of the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section is prosecuting the case.
Valencia Man Sentenced To 7 Years In Prison For $4 Million False Government Contract Con
A Valencia man who claimed to be a tax preparer was sentenced Tuesday to 84 months in federal prison for defrauding his clients out of more than $4 million by falsely promising them huge windfalls from a sham federal program that purportedly would issue large grants to them.
Edgardo Zeta Montalban, 70, of Valencia, was sentenced by United States District Judge Stanley Blumenfeld Jr., who said Montalban “exploited human frailty” in conducting his fraud. Judge Blumenfeld said the criminal conduct in this case was “despicable, cruel and callous,” and it caused “devastating effects on numerous victims,” according to the United States Attorney’s Office.
From 2013 to September 2020, Montalban, who held himself out as an accountant and tax preparer, asked some of his clients to invest in a federal grant program he called “Suppressed IRS Accounts.”
Montalban told his clients that if they paid him in cash, the federal government would issue them grants many times larger than what they paid. In reality, no such grant program existed, prosecutors said.
In furtherance of the scheme, a co-conspirator made counterfeit Treasury checks payable to the victim clients for tens of millions of dollars, which Montalban used as props to entice the victims to pay him. Montalban explained to the victims that they had to pay him in cash to protect the federal grant program’s secrecy.
After his victims paid him, Montalban made up excuses as to why the Treasury checks had been delayed, and tricked the victims into paying him more money, purportedly for expenses necessary to overcome the obstacles to their checks’ issuance, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
“[Montalban] would promise his victims a huge windfall from the government in exchange for a modest payment up front to [Montalban] in cash,” prosecutors wrote in their sentencing memorandum. “Because the windfall was a fraud, each purported difficulty overcome by an additional cash payment had to lead to yet another difficulty, requiring yet another cash payment. [Montalban] repeated this process until he had bled his victims dry, or they realized they had been defrauded and stopped paying him.”
Montalban has been in federal custody since April 6, when Judge Blumenfeld found that he violated the conditions of his bond by continuing to commit the fraud even after pleading guilty in December 2020 to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud.
Federal prosecutors recommended Montalban receive a prison sentence of 120 months, but Judge Blumenfeld decided to issue the seven-year sentence after considering Montalban’s significant health issues.
The FBI investigated this case with assistance from the U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA).
Assistant United States Attorney Andrew Brown of the Major Frauds Section prosecuted this case.
Parolee Pleads Guilty To Execution-Style Murder Of Sgt. Steve Owen In Lancaster
A parolee pleaded guilty Thursday to the 2016 execution-style murder of Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Sgt. Steve Owen in Lancaster.
Trenton Lovell, 31, is scheduled to be sentenced on May 17 and is facing the possibility of life in prison without the possibility of parole, according to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.
On Oct. 6, Lovell was accused of shooting Owen, 53, multiple times shortly after the deputy arrived at the 3200 block of West Avenue J-7 to respond to a burglary call.
Lovell allegedly then jumped into the sergeant’s patrol vehicle while a second deputy arrived at the scene, prosecutors said.
Lovell also pleaded guilty to several other crimes the same day of the sergeant’s killing, including the attempted murder charge for using Owen’s patrol car to ram another patrol car.
The suspect also pleaded to first-degree residential robbery and false imprisonment by violence for fleeing to a nearby home occupied by two people.
The criminal complaint includes allegations that the defendant was on parole at the time of the crime and that he was convicted of robbery as a juvenile in 2006 and then again as an adult in 2009.
The death penalty was not sought as part of a directive from District Attorney George Gascón.
Owen, a 29-year veteran of the department, was well-known for his community involvement. After his death, Lancaster City Park was named in honor of the fallen sergeant.
Support for Owen came across the country and the community, with then-Gov. Jerry Brown attending the funeral services.
Lovell is due back in court on May 17 for a sentencing hearing.
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