In a truly twisted irony, the State of California marked the start of National Crime Victims’ Rights Week Sunday by announcing the early prison release of the son of a former politician who had his already plea-bargained sentence for the fatal stabbing of 22-year-old San Diego college student Luis Santos commuted by then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Associated Press reports.
Esteban Nunez and friend Ryan Jett stabbed Santos to death in 2008. One of the wounds pierced Santos’ heart. The killers were angry after being turned away from a party.
Both men were charged with murder, as well as assault with a deadly weapon for stabbing two other victims, who survived. But on the eve of their trial in 2010, as the LA Times reports, both killers pleaded guilty to charges of voluntary manslaughter and assault with a deadly weapon. Each received a sentence of 16 years in prison. The plea bargain spared Nunez and Jett the possibility of a first-degree murder conviction at trial, which would have resulted in sentences of 25 years to life.
But as it turns out, Esteban Nunez is the son of former state Assembly speaker Fabian Nunez. And Fabian Nunez was a political ally of then-governor Schwarzenegger, who commuted Esteban Nunez sentence to seven years on his last day in office in 2011. He served less than six before his release over the weekend.
Per the AP:
In 2012, a Sacramento judge called the commutation “repugnant” but legal. In 2015, an appeals court wrote that “back-room dealings were apparent,” but upheld Schwarzenegger’s power to reduce the sentence.
Schwarzenegger said at the time that he acted because he thought the 16-year sentence was excessive, but he also acknowledged he was helping a friend.
Schwarzenegger explained the commutation in an August, 2011, Newsweek interview, saying, “Well, hello! I mean, of course you help a friend.”
Santos’ family receive no warning of the commutation, per the Sacramento Bee. They and San Diego District Attorney filed lawsuits seeking to invalidate the commutation, arguing that it violated the Victims Bill of Rights, also known as Marsy’s Law. Under the 2008 legislation, victims’ families have a right to be heard during post-conviction proceedings. A three-judge panel from the 3rd District Court of Appeals grudgingly upheld an earlier court finding that gubernatorial acts of clemency do not constitute “proceedings,” and therefore are not subject to the Victims Bill of Rights.
“We are compelled to conclude that, while Schwarzenegger’s conduct could be seen as deserving of censure and grossly unjust, it was not illegal,” the panel of judges wrote in their opinion.
PHOTOS via the Associated Press