San Diego County D.A. blasts Schwarzenegger's decision to reduce sentence of Fabian Nuñez's son
San Diego County District Atty. Bonnie Dumanis said Monday she was shocked to learn that then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had reduced the prison sentence of the son of former Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez.
The decision "greatly diminishes justice for victim Luis Santos and re-victimizes his family and friends," Dumanis said in a prepared statement. "The district attorney's office was not consulted, and the decision comes as the appeals process was continuing."
San Diego City Atty. Jan Goldsmith also denounced the decision. Goldsmith accused the governor of reducing the sentence of Esteban Nuñez from 16 years to seven years to “help his political crony’s son.”
“In doing so,” said Goldsmith, like Dumanis a former Superior Court judge, “he undermined the judicial system and has jeopardized public safety .... I speak for the overwhelming majority of San Diegans in stating that we are appalled and angry.”
Esteban Nuñez was sentenced after pleading guilty to manslaughter and assault with a deadly weapon in the stabbing death of Santos, a college student, during a late-night street brawl near San Diego State in October 2008.
Sunday night, Schwarzenegger announced his decision, along with other judicial moves to reduce criminal sentences.
Santos' father, Fred Santos, a software engineer in Northern California, said the family is outraged at the sentence reduction and that Esteban Nuñez had already received favorable treatment when he was allowed to plead guilty to lesser charges rather than stand trial for murder, which could have led to a life sentence.
Like Dumanis, Fred Santos said he had no warning that the decision was imminent or even under discussion at the governor's office. "We're just little people," he said. "I guess we don't count."
Charles Sevilla, the San Diego attorney who prepared the commutation request for Esteban Nuñez, said he is “surprised and gratified” that it was accepted by the governor.
“Getting a commutation ruling is like a bolt of lightning striking,” he said. “They are few and far between.”
The request was filed Dec. 2, Sevilla said.
The request, Sevilla said, used the same arguments that Nuñez’s trial attorney, Bradley Patton, used at sentencing and were also the basis of a sentencing appeal, now rendered moot by the governor’s decision: that the sentencing was overly harsh given Esteban Nuñez’s lack of a record and his limited role in the fatal brawl that followed a night of partying and drinking.
Sevilla said his role was limited to filling out the paperwork -- “sort of a fill in the blanks." He said he was never quizzed by the governor or his staff, never asked to be part of an oral presentation and never asked for additional documentation.
The argument, Sevilla said, was based on the fact that Esteban Nuñez and Ryan Jett had both pleaded guilty to manslaughter and assault with a deadly weapon although Nuñez had no criminal record and no evidence showed that he had stabbed Santos, whereas Jett had two previous convictions, was on felony probation and was shown to have fatally stabbed Santos.
Sevilla said he also mentioned in the paperwork that the San Diego County Superior Court judge had suggested he would give Nuñez a lesser sentence (probably seven to 11 years) than Jett. When both were instead sentenced to 16 years, the maximum, Nuñez’s father had an angry outburst in court.
Like Patton, Sevilla said he believes Esteban Nuñez, who was 19 at the time of the incident, received the same sentence as Jett because the judge did not want to be criticized as allegedly giving preference to the son of a politically powerful father.
“People think he benefited from his father’s status,” Sevilla said. “I think he suffered from it. The criminal justice system, and the media in its coverage, bent over backward to make sure he got no benefit. This became the ‘Nuñez case.’ I think the system became zealous in its effort not to show favoritism.”
Any other defendant in similar circumstances as Esteban Nuñez, Sevilla said, would have gotten a sentencing like that imposed by the governor, not the maximum sentence handed out by the judge.
Esteban Nuñez is currently at Mule Creek State Prison, located in Ione, east of Sacramento.
The issue of political influence and special treatment has been part of the case from the beginning _ to the dismay of defense attorneys.
In announcing the arrest of Nunez and three others for the slaying, San Diego police said Nunez received no special attention. Later the district attorney filed court documents saying that Nunez had bragged to his friends that even if they were charged, his father could get them off with a self-defense plea.
And when the judge set bail at $2 million, some 70 individuals from the worlds of governments, politics and labor relations sent letters attesting to the good character of the Nunez family and Esteban. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, in his letter, called young Nunez “a decent and responsible young man.”
Bail was reduced to $1 million and Esteban Nunez was allowed to remain free until the trial.
-- Tony Perry in San Diego
Photo: Former California Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, right, and his son Esteban Nunez, left, leave a hearing in Superior Court in San Diego in March 2009. Credit: Denis Poroy / Associated Press