SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Former California Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez said Monday that his son’s manslaughter sentence last year in the stabbing death of a 22-year-old college student was politically motivated, angering the parents of the victim.
The parents are suing the state and former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, claiming that he violated state law when he failed to notify them that he was reducing Esteban Nunez’s sentence from 16 years to seven just hours before leaving office.
Outside the first court hearing in the case, Fabian Nunez said his son received a tougher sentence because of his father’s political career and the district attorney’s ambitions.
“When you’re dealing with a district attorney like we did in San Diego, who clearly, you know, has aspirations and has always had aspirations for higher office, the approach that they took to my son’s case, and in particular to him, irrespective of the facts of the actual case — they picked on my son from day one,” said Nunez, a Los Angeles Democrat who was termed out of office in 2008.
“You add up an overzealous district attorney with a judge in San Diego who represented that he would, my son, get a much lower sentence and then went back on his word — that’s why we are where we are. It’s just a horrible tragedy all around and I feel horrible,” Nunez said.
Bonnie Dumanis, the San Diego district attorney who prosecuted the case, is now running for mayor of the city. In a statement released by her office, Dumanis said the sole purpose of the criminal prosecution and a separate civil case filed by her office seeking to overturn the sentence commutation was to bring justice to the victims of the crime.
“The DA’s office makes prosecutorial decisions based on the evidence and the law, treating defendants the same regardless of who they may be related to,” she said. “Unfortunately, the governor didn’t do the same and his last-minute commutation greatly diminished justice and outraged the community. We’re trying to right that wrong.”
Nunez also called the lawsuit filed by the family a waste of taxpayers’ money and said he believes California’s victims’ rights statute known as Marsy’s Law, which voters approved in 2008, does not apply to the governor’s power to commute or pardon sentences.
The family of Luis Santos, who was stabbed to death after being attacked by Esteban Nunez and three friends in San Diego, was just steps away from the elder Nunez as he spoke to reporters in the small waiting area outside a Sacramento County courtroom.
Luis’ father, Fred Santos, said it was Nunez who made the case political by asking the Republican governor to spare his son a longer prison term. The speaker of the Assembly is one of the most powerful positions in state government.
“He did politicize this process, we did not politicize this process. We’re just regular citizens. We have no pull with any politicians. He’s the politician,” Santos said. “He’s the one with the weight and the pull that made a sitting governor break the law and reduce his son’s sentence. That’s the political process he was talking about.
“Yes, it is politicized — but by him not by us,” he said.
In court, Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Shelleyanne Chang listened to arguments from Seth Goldstein, an attorney with the state Attorney General’s office, which is seeking to have the case thrown out. Chang issued a tentative ruling siding with the Santos family, but did not issue an official decision.
Schwarzenegger acknowledged in an interview with Newsweek magazine published in April that he made a mistake in not notifying Santos’ parents about the commutation, but said he still felt good about the decision.
“I happen to know the kid really well. I don’t apologize about it . There’s criticism out there. I think it’s just because of our working relationship and all that. It maybe was kind of saying, `That’s why he did it.’ Well, hello! I mean, of course you help a friend,” he said.
In a statement accompanying his decision on his final day in office, Schwarzenegger said Nunez’ 16-year sentence was “excessive,” in part because he had no prior criminal record and did not inflict the fatal wound on Santos, who was unarmed. Nunez did stab two others during the fight that broke out after Nunez and his friends were kicked out of a fraternity party at San Diego’s Mesa College.
Soon after the crime, co-defendant Leshanor Thomas told police that Esteban Nunez had assured him he would “take the rap” for whatever happened and that “hopefully his dad would take care of it and could get them off on self-defense,” court documents said.
To avoid the possibility of getting a life term if the case went to trial, Esteban Nunez pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and two counts of assault in 2009.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)