August 2, 2021 By Paul Wallin

In an opinion issued May 3rd, 2021 the California Supreme Court overturned the death sentence of a mother who was convicted of killing her 4 children due to misconduct by the court during the penalty phase of the case.

The Guilt Phase and The Penalty Phase

The United States Supreme Court has set a two-step procedure for death penalty cases where the jury must first determine whether a defendant is guilty (the guilt phase) and then determine whether to sentence the defendant to death (the penalty phase).  In California, a jury must determine, in the penalty phase, whether there are sufficient special circumstances during a murder case to trigger the death penalty and whether the aggravating factors of the defendant’s conduct outweigh any mitigating factors. 

People vs. Nieves

In the case of People v. Nieves, the California Supreme Court found that the trial judge’s repeated derisive remarks directed at the defense attorney and his experts tainted the jury throughout the case.  It held the jury’s findings, that the defendant was guilty, could stand due to the overwhelming evidence of the defendant’s guilt, but that the case should be sent back to the trial court for a new trial due to the potential of prejudice in the penalty phase.  The Supreme Court noted that:

“The trial judge’s misconduct included pervasive mistreatment of defense counsel that began at the outset of trial.  The judge disparaged defense counsel during his opening statement for suggesting that the defendant had demons to overcome.  The timing of those remarks and their substance — sarcasm about the defendant’s troubled history — increased their potential for prejudice.  The many inappropriate remarks that followed focused on defense counsel’s violation of court rules, lack of preparation, and improper cross-examination of prosecution witnesses; and disparaging and erroneous comments about defense counsel’s discovery violations also suggested that the defense was trying to obstruct the prosecution.”

The Court believed that the judge was, in effect, indicating to the jury that they should rule a certain way, however, it declined to reverse the finding of guilt due to “ inconsistent and implausible theories that gave the jury little, if any, reason to doubt the defendant’s guilt.”

Regarding the penalty phase, however, the Supreme Court ruled that:  “the trial judge continued to impugn defense counsel’s performance and cited him for misconduct and contempt in front of the jury.  We have observed that when a judge regularly denigrates the performance of counsel “ ‘it is not the lawyer who pays the price, but the client.’

This case signifies how important it is for judges to remain unbiased and not to show favoritism for either the prosecution or defense in a criminal case. However, in some cases, judges are not fair to those accused of crimes. This is why you need a law firm like Wallin and Klarich fighting for you. We will “call out” the judge when he does anything that we believe is improper or prejudices our client’s rights. 

Contact Wallin & Klarich Today

If you are charged with any criminal matter, your freedom may depend on choosing a highly experienced criminal defense law firm to help you. At Wallin and Klarich, we have a knowledgeable team of attorneys that understands that a judge cannot show favoritism toward the prosecution or show prejudice toward our client during the trial. When that happens we will make certain that the “record” of what the judge is doing is made clear. If the judge’s conduct leads to a guilty verdict for our client we are prepared to appeal the conviction as happened in the above case. Contact us today for a free, no-obligation consultation and let us help you.

 With offices in Orange County, Riverside, San Bernardino, Victorville, West Covina, Torrance, Los Angeles, and San Diego, you can find an experienced Wallin & Klarich criminal defense attorney available near you no matter where you are located.

Contact our offices today at (877) 4-NO-JAIL or (714) 587-4279 for a free, no-obligation phone consultation. We will be there when you call.

AUTHOR: Paul Wallin

Paul Wallin is one of the most highly respected attorneys in Southern California. His vast experience, zealous advocacy for his clients and extensive knowledge of many areas of the law make Mr. Wallin a premiere Southern California attorney. Mr. Wallin founded Wallin & Klarich in 1981. As the senior partner of Wallin & Klarich, Mr. Wallin has been successfully representing clients for more than 30 years. Clients come to him for help in matters involving assault and battery, drug crimes, juvenile crimes, theft, manslaughter, sex offenses, murder, violent crimes, misdemeanors and felonies. Mr. Wallin also helps clients with family law matters such as divorce and child custody.

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