It’s the story that won’t go away. When asked about it last week, Arnold made snoring sounds at the reporter and said his question was “boring.” The story Arnold finds boring involves leniency for a killer with a connected father.
Arnold Schwarzenegger, in December 2010, on his last day as governor of California, in a decision that caught prosecutors and the victim’s family by surprise, reduced the sentence of Estaban Nunez from 16 years to seven years.
Nunez, 19 when the crime was committed, is the son of former Assembly Speaker and current Sacramento lobbyist Fabian Nunez.
Estaban and three others had been kicked out of a fraternity party in the early hours of Oct. 4, 2009, and were out “looking for trouble.” They got in a fight with Luis Santos and his friends on the campus of San Diego State University. Santos was knifed and died; three other of his were friends wounded.
Nunez, Ryan Jett and their two friends fled to Sacramento, burned their blood splattered clothing and threw the remains along with the knives they had used in the fight into the Sacramento River. They were later arrested.
To avoid a trial, Nunez pled guilty to voluntary manslaughter and assault with a deadly weapon. Nunez admitted stabbing one of the victims, who recovered. He was given the maximum sentence of 16 years, over the objection of Fabian Nunez, who appeared in person in court to plead for leniency from the judge for his son.
Fabian Nunez was speaker of the state Assembly from 2004 to 2008, working closely with Gov. Schwarzenegger. He is currently a partner in a lobbying firm in Sacramento called Mercury Public Affairs. Another partner is Adam Mendelsohn, a former deputy chief of staff to the governor.
In reducing Estaban Nunez’ sentence, the governor cited the court finding that blows and stabbing delivered by Nunez wounded one of the victims but did not directly cause the death of Luis Santos and that, at the time, Nunez did not have a criminal record.
Schwarzenegger didn’t always find these sufficient reasons for reducing sentences.
As documented by Jack Dolan in the Los Angeles Times, the governor reversed state parole board decisions to free inmates serving long prison sentences in 29 similar cases where the inmates had participated in crimes that left a victim dead but they had not delivered the fatal blows. Like Nunez, 11 of those inmates had no previous criminal record. The governor overruled the parole board decision in every case and ordered the inmates to serve the rest of their sentences.
The California Parole Board is not made up of ACLU lawyers. The board is composed of former law enforcement and prosecutor types appointed by Schwarzenegger
Consider this example of the governor’s attitude before the Nunez case. In June 2009, the governor overturned the parole board’s decision to free Seiu Ngo, who had served 16 years for a gang assault at Fullerton High School when he was 19 that resulted in the death of a rival gang member, shot by one of Ngo’s accomplices. Ngo also had no record and also fled the scene to avoid detection.
Ngo had family support and a job waiting for him outside prison. Schwarzenegger supported his hard line stand by noting that Ngo had failed to take full responsibility for his actions as demonstrated by fleeing the crime scene.
Linnea Adams has served more than 12 years for a robbery when she was 17 that led to a killing of the robbery victim by one her friends. She had no previous record. The governor overturned the parole board decision and ordered her back to prison to serve the remainder of her term.
Sixteen-year-old Willy Coria was in the back seat of a car when others in the car fired at a liquor store and killed a woman. Coria had no record and testified he didn’t know that anyone in the car had a gun. His sentence was 16 years to life; he had served 15 years. Arnold overturned the parole board and denied parole.
I don’t want to rehash these cases and have no opinion as to who was right, the parole board or the governor. I also respect the constitutional power any governor has to grant reprieves, pardons and commutation of sentences.
What smells is this: Arnold Schwarzenegger applied one tough standard to similar cases where he had no personal knowledge of the facts or connection to the people involved. In the Nunez case, he acted to drastically reduce the sentence of the son of a political ally.
Arnold would like this to be “old news”; for all of us to be as “bored” by continuing questions as he professes to be.
The ex-governor should answer the question. If he believes in “equal justice under the law,” he should explain why Estaban Nunez got a reduced sentence when he overruled his own parole board and sent many others in similar cases back to serve the full sentence for their crimes.
In the absence of an alternative explanation, the belief here is that justice was not “blind” – and that Arnold simply junked “equal justice” and did a big favor for a friend.