Schwarzenegger commutes sentence for son of political ally on last day

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger pursued a triangulation strategy after an embarrassing defeat on his referenda in his first term, and like Bill Clinton, succeeded in winning a second term.  And like Bill Clinton, Schwarzenegger decided to issue controversial executive-clemency actions in the eleventh hour of that term, with one in particular almost certain to further tarnish his legacy.  Schwarzenegger commuted the sentence of Esteban Nunez for his role in the murder of a college student, reducing a 16-year prison term to just seven years, apparently without consulting the family of the victim.

Obviously, though, Schwarzenegger consulted the family of the perpetrator, as Nunez’ father is a close political ally of the outgoing governor:

In his final night before leaving office, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger commuted the prison sentence of the son of former Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez who had pleaded guilty to taking part in the murder of a college student.

Schwarzenegger announced the move in a batch of eleventh-hour press releases e-mailed to reporters. He also announced he was granting several other commutations and pardons and giving plum government appointments to political allies and the spouse of his chief of staff.

Esteban Nuñez, who was sentenced to 16 years in prison for his role in the October 2008 stabbing death of college student Luis Dos Santos near San Diego State, had his prison term commuted to seven years by the governor. In a statement, the governor noted that Nuñez, while involved in the fight, did not inflict the fatal knife wound to Santos’ chest. He cites a finding by the court that it was a friend of Nuñez who stabbed Santos through the chest, “severing his heart.”

“”I do not discount the gravity of the offense,” Schwarzenegger’s statement said. “But given Nuñez’s limited role in Santos’ death, and considering that…Nuñez had no criminal record prior to this offense, I believe Nuñez’s sentence is excessive.”

The family of the victim gave a painfully apt analysis of the decision:

“I guess if you’re the son of somebody important you can kill someone and get all sorts of breaks.”

It’s important to note that the 16-year sentence for the murder came as a result of a plea bargain.  Prosecutors had planned to try Nunez and Ryan Jett for murder for the stabbing death of Santos after Nunez and Jett were barred from entering a frat party.  They had two witnesses ready to testify, and Nunez could have ended up with a life sentence for his role in the killing.  Instead, prosecutors cut the deal for a guilty plea to voluntary manslaughter and assault, which carries a 16-year maximum sentence.

Two months ago, Nunez’ attorneys tried getting the judge to reduce the sentence, arguing that Jett actually committed the murder.  However, as part of the same assault, Nunez stabbed two other people, who survived.  California law holds that anyone participating in the commission of a felony that leads to murder is as legally responsible for murder as the actual killer, and in this case it seems like pure luck that Nunez didn’t kill anyone himself in the melee.  Nunez also participated in destroying evidence tying he and Jett back to the crime.

The judge refused to reduce the sentence to the 7-11 years Nunez and his family said they expected.  Instead, the Pardonator has decided to give Nunez the low end of what the perpetrator thinks is justice.

Pardons and commutations are largely thankless tasks for governors and presidents.  There is almost no political upside to them, and plenty of risk for backlash from victims, especially for violent offenders.  That’s one reason Barack Obama has been especially parsimonious with executive clemency, following the lead of George Bush and learning a lesson from Clinton as well.  But Schwarzenegger deserves no benefit of the doubt here at all.  He and Nunez have been partnered up for years on legislative efforts that Schwarzenegger used to curry favor from California liberals, especially the carbon-cap law that will eventually force California to buy all of its energy from outside the state, which is not coincidentally where most of its other businesses will go, too.  This smells of political backscratching, cronyism, and corruption — and it’s a stink that will follow Schwarzenegger the rest of his life.

The Boss Emeritus has more on this, especially the background of Nunez’ attempts to intimidate witnesses and lay the blame for the murder and stabbings on the unarmed victims.