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Nieves’ Attorney Seeks Removal of Judge From Trial

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a highly unusual move, the defense attorney for Sandi Nieves, the woman accused of murdering her four daughters by setting her house on fire, has asked that the judge be removed from the trial.

“I believe that the Honorable L. Jeffrey Wiatt is biased against me and is not impartial in this case,” stated the written declaration of Deputy Public Defender Howard Waco, in the motion to disqualify the judge filed Thursday with San Fernando Superior Court.

Legal experts say such a request, coming in the middle of trial, is extremely rare and would be even more extraordinary if granted.

“This is war between the defense lawyer and the judge,” said Laurie Levenson, criminal law professor at Loyola Law School. If the motion is granted, Levenson said, “What it would entail is the judge would have to declare a mistrial.”

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Nieves, now 36, allegedly gathered her five children in the kitchen-den area of their Saugus house for a slumber party on the night of June 30, 1998, and started a fire. Her daughters, Kristl and Jaqlene Folden, 5 and 7, and Rashel and Nikolet Folden-Nieves, 11 and 12, died of smoke inhalation. Her teenage son David Nieves survived.

Prosecutors contend Nieves killed her children out of desperation and anger at the men in her life. Her defense argues she was legally unconscious at the time of the fire.

Nieves is charged with four counts of first-degree murder, attempted murder of her son and arson. She faces a possible death penalty if convicted.

According to Waco’s seven-page court document, Wiatt allowed a prosecution witness to testify out of order but refused to allow defense witnesses the same latitude. He also complained about the treatment of some defense witnesses, including a Canadian doctor whose scheduling conflicts the court refused to accommodate.

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Since trial began, Wiatt has sanctioned Waco four times, mostly for making inappropriate objections, and has slapped him with more than $3,000 in fines. The motion quotes Wiatt telling Waco: “I cannot trust you to abide by the court’s rulings.”

Deputy Dist. Atty. Beth Silverman called the motion a “desperate” ploy “to divert attention from [Waco’s] actions in the case to something else.”

Prosecutors claim Waco has repeatedly violated discovery law during trial. For example, the trial had to be suspended for two weeks because the defense had not turned over evidence to the prosecution, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Kenneth Barshop.

Another judge will rule on the motion within 10 days, Waco said.

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