A Case of Evil – But Death Penalty Reversed
This is not an insurance case although the damage caused by Sandi Dawn Nieves would have resulted in a fire insurance claim. This is a case of premeditated murder by a woman who intentionally killed four of her children and attempted – but failed – to kill the fifth. The California Supreme Court, in The People v. Sandi Dawn Nieves, S092410, Supreme Court Of California (May 3, 2021) spent more than 180 pages to conclude that her conviction should stand but reversed the finding of the jury that she should be put to death.
A jury convicted Sandi Dawn Nieves of the first degree murder of her daughters Nikolet Amber Nieves, Rashel Hollie Nieves, Kristl Dawn Folden, and Jaqlene Marie Folden, attempted murder of her son, and arson. The jury found true the special circumstance allegations that 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 trial, the jury returned a verdict of death. The trial court denied defendant’s motion to modify the death penalty verdict and her motion for a new trial and sentenced her to death. This appeal is automatic.
Defendant called 911 to report a fire at her home in early July 1998. When paramedics arrived, the fire had been out for some time and defendant was covered in soot and sitting in the living room with her 14-year-old son F.D. Defendant’s four daughters, ages 12, 11, 7, and 5, 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.
Defendant sent a note “Now you don’t have to support any of us! FUCK YOU you are scum!” Defendant’s son F.D. testified that on the night of the fire defendant declared they would have a “slumber party” in the kitchen.
Prospective jurors are disqualified from serving on a capital jury when their views about capital punishment would prevent or substantially impair the performance of their duties in accordance with their instructions and oath.
Here, the prospective juror’s responses to adequate written questions were not ambiguous and the questionnaire twice instructed him to consider the nature of the charged crimes when answering. The trial court did not abuse its discretion by declining to repeat questions in oral voir dire that had already been answered.
Guilt Phase Issues
The trial court struck a portion of testimony by defense expert Del Winter, a retired fire investigator. Winter testified that the fire at defendant’s house was set in several places and that a very small amount of gasoline was used. He found it odd that the fire was set where it was not likely to cause significant damage and the gas can was put back in its place after use. He concluded that “the fire didn’t make a lot of sense.” Winter could not recall a similar type of fire, stating, “This is pretty unusual.” Addressing scorched items in the oven, Winter testified that “[i]t’s just like the rest of this case. It just doesn’t make any sense as far as logic.”
At the conclusion of his testimony, Winter identified several classifications of arson, such as insurance fraud and crime cover-up and a category he called “psycho fires,” in which the motive for the fire is obscure. Although Winter was allowed to opine over objection that defendant’s fire fell into the “psycho” category, the next day the trial court revisited the ruling and struck the testimony.
Arson-Murder Special Circumstance
The requirement of an independent felonious purpose applies to felony-murder special-circumstance findings. This subdivision authorizes a special circumstance finding when the murder was committed while the defendant was engaged in the commission of or the attempted commission of various other specified felonies.
There was substantial evidence from which the jury could have concluded that defendant’s purpose for the arson apart from the murder was suicide. After lighting gasoline throughout the house, defendant lay down with her children and stayed with them while the fire and smoke overwhelmed them; at one point when he regained consciousness, defendant’s son saw that she was unconscious on the floor with his sisters. In her testimony, defendant acknowledged that she had contemplated suicide most of her life.
Because killing oneself is a purpose separate from killing one’s victims, the Supreme Court concluded that the evidence is sufficient to establish that defendant committed arson with independent, albeit concurrent, goals of killing herself and killing her children.
The Supreme Court reversed the death sentence and affirmed the judgment in all other respects.
Although Ms. Nieves had no intention to defraud her insurer she provided evidence that any arson, including an arson-for-profit, is a dangerous and evil proceeding where people die or are seriously injured. In this case the fire intentionally set and accelerated by Ms. Nieves killed four of her children and seriously injured a fifth. I don’t understand the reversal of the death penalty since Ms. Nieves fit all the required categories but can hope she will never leave prison. The case did not deserve a more than 180 page opinion. It could have been resolved without giving detailed analysis of each claim of error.
© 2021 – Barry Zalma
Barry Zalma, Esq., CFE, now limits his practice to service as an insurance consultant specializing in insurance coverage, insurance claims handling, insurance bad faith and insurance fraud almost
equally for insurers and policyholders. He also serves as an arbitrator or mediator for insurance related disputes. He practiced law in California for more than 44 years as an insurance coverage and claims handling lawyer and more than 52 years in the insurance business. He is available at http://www.zalma.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mr. Zalma is the first recipient of the first annual Claims Magazine/ACE Legend Award.
Over the last 53 years Barry Zalma has dedicated his life to insurance, insurance claims and the need to defeat insurance fraud. He has created the following library of books and other materials to make it possible for insurers and their claims staff to become insurance claims professionals.
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