The California Supreme Court on Monday upheld the murder conviction of a Los Angeles woman, but overturned her death sentence after finding a judge acted unfairly at trial (article available here).
In the 7-0 ruling, the court concluded that the trial judge may have biased jurors by disparaging Sandi Dawn Nieves’ public defender in front of the jury during a murder trial. The judge accused the public defender of wasting “valuable court time” and called his questions “ridiculous” and “nonsensical,” among other belittling remarks. The state supreme court reversed the death sentence “due to the trial court’s misconduct.”
“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,” the unanimous court wrote.
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.
The trial judge fatally shot himself in 2005 while the subject of a child molestation investigation. He had been serving as a judge since 1993.
The case is People v. Nieves, S092410 (May 3, 2021).