Nieves in Sleepwalking State When Children Killed, Defense Suggests — (Los Angeles Times)

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Los Angeles Times

June 27, 2000|

By CAITLIN LIU, Times Staff Writer

Trial: Prescription drugs, hormonal imbalance could have caused mother to be ‘basically unconscious’ when daughters died in Saugus house fire, medical expert says.

Sandi Nieves, the Saugus woman accused of killing her four daughters by setting their house on fire, was likely in an unconscious, sleepwalking-like condition at the time of the deadly blaze, a defense expert suggested Monday at her murder trial.

“Mothers who kill their children are often in a disassociative state,” said Dr. Philip G. Ney, a neuropsychiatrist, citing research.

The sometimes rambling testimony of Ney, who is also a medical school professor, was aimed at bolstering one of the key arguments of Nieves’ defense: that the woman, now 36, was not really conscious at the time of the fire and consequently should not be held legally responsible for her daughters’ deaths.

Prosecutors contend that Nieves tried to commit suicide and kill her children out of financial desperation and anger at the men in her life. In the weeks before the fire, a boyfriend left her, and she was engaged in a child support battle with an ex-husband.

On the night of June 30, 1998, Nieves allegedly gathered her children in the kitchen-den area of their rented Saugus house for a slumber party, and, while they slept, started a fire.  Her four 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.

Nieves is charged with four counts of first-degree murder and the attempted murder of her son.   If convicted, she faces a possible death penalty.

In court Monday before San Fernando Superior Court Judge L. Jeffrey Wiatt, Ney described Nieves’ mental and physical condition in the days before the fire.   Nieves, who had an early childhood history of epilepsy, was also taking a combination of phentermine, a prescription diet drug, and Zoloft, an antidepressant, Ney said.

“The two drugs don’t go together,” Ney said. He likened the possible effect on the brain to a car’s motor that is being accelerated to top speed just as it’s running out of gas. “It’s really, really tough on the biochemistry of the brain. . . . It can kill you,” he added.

At the time, Ney said, Nieves was also hormonally unbalanced because of a recent abortion.    All those factors made her more vulnerable to a “disassociative state” in which “You’re basically unconscious,” Ney testified, when questioned by Deputy Public Defender Howard Waco.

Ney likened that condition to sleepwalking or sleeptalking, where a person can sound logical and perform complicated tasks but is not actually aware of what he or she is doing.
As an expert witness, Ney is forbidden by California law to refer directly to Nieves’ mental state at the time of the crime, but he was allowed to testify about what a hypothetical person with Nieves’ exact conditions might have experienced.

Someone like Nieves was likely to have had a severe “change in neurochemistry,” Ney said. “All of these things disinhibit a person . . . so you can do all kinds of wild and bizarre things.”
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In earlier testimony, Dr. Robert Brook, a neuropsychoanalyst, testified for the prosecution that a lease signed by Nieves, in which the divorcee claimed to be married and said she had only three children, showed she was dishonest.

“It’s an example of the defendant’s manipulation of facts,” said Brook, when questioned by Deputy Dist. Atty. Beth Silverman.  Also Monday, Judge Wiatt fined defense attorney Waco $1,100 because he made an inappropriate objection in court. Since the trial began, Wiatt has sanctioned Waco four times and has fined him more than $3,000, according to the court.
Waco said Monday he didn’t know if the public defender’s office would reimburse him for the fines.