Suit seeks to nullify Schwarzenegger commutation

AP News
Posted: May 11, 2011 11:03 PM
Suit seeks to nullify Schwarzenegger commutation

San Diego County prosecutors asked a state court Wednesday to overturn former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's last-minute decision to slash the prison sentence for the son of former Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, his friend and political ally.

The civil lawsuit filed in San Diego County Superior Court is the latest fallout from the Republican governor's decision, which angered prosecutors, the victim's family and other Republicans.

A day before his term ended in January, Schwarzenegger cut by more than half the sentence for Esteban Nunez, to 7 years from 16 years. The younger Nunez pleaded guilty in the 2008 in the stabbing death of a San Diego college student, 22-year-old Luis Santos.

District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis said at a news conference that state law requires a governor who is considering a commutation to consult with victims, but that never happened.

"Instead, this last-minute commutation made without all the facts or input from the parties, only fueled the public's mistrust of government and greatly diminished justice," Dumanis told reporters at a news conference.

"They made an end-run around the court" she added.

The lawsuit seeks to reinstate the 16-year sentence. Because Schwarzenegger no longer holds office, the lawsuit was filed against Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, the director of the state Department of Corrections, a state prison warden and Esteban Nunez.

It was filed on behalf of victims Evan Henderson, Keith Robertson and Brandon Scheerer, who were injured in the stabbing spree, and asks the court to issue an order preventing authorities from allowing Esteban Nunez from being released under the reduced sentence.

The Santos family has filed a separate lawsuit challenging the decision.

"While appreciating the political pressure the District Attorney is under, we do not believe she has any grounds or even procedure to do this. She may not even have standing to seek this type of relief," Esteban Nunez's lawyer Caryn B. Sanders said in a statement.

Schwarzenegger considered Nunez's 16-year sentence "excessive," in part because he had no prior criminal record and did not inflict the fatal wound on Santos. Nunez stabbed two others during the fight that broke out after he and his friends were kicked out of a fraternity party near San Diego State University.

Dumanis said that if Schwarzenegger had notified the victims, she would not have been able to take legal action even if she disagreed with his decision. She made clear that her office is not challenging the power of governors to grant pardons or commutations, which are intended to guard against miscarriages of justice.

Daniel Ketchell, a Schwarzenegger spokesman, declined comment. Brown spokesman Gil Duran also declined comment.

In an earlier interview with Newsweek magazine, Schwarzenegger defended the decision and said he was helping a friend. He said he knew the younger Nunez well, felt good about his decision and acted because of his "working relationship" with the elder Nunez, a Democrat who frequently cooperated with the Republican governor in the Legislature.

"Well, hello! I mean, of course you help a friend," Schwarzenegger said in the magazine interview.

The slain man's parents said Schwarzenegger's comments confirm that his decision was political.

"Political swindlers hijacked our justice," Luis Santos' mother, Kathy Santos, told reporters Wednesday. "Schwarzenegger showed more compassion for a killer than for any of the four victims that night."

She called Esteban Nunez "a lucky killer with political connections."

According to testimony contained in court documents, a co-defendant told police that Esteban Nunez 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."

Schwarzenegger later wrote a letter to Santos' parents acknowledging that he provided no notice to the victims, a failure he also admitted in the interview.

That omission also is at the heart of the separate lawsuit filed by Santos' family.

The family argued that the governor's decision violated several provisions of Proposition 9, a victims' rights amendment approved by voters in November 2008. The measure, known as Marsy's Law, requires that victims receive notice and have a chance to be heard before sentences are reduced, that their safety be considered in any such decisions, and that victims can expect to have criminals punished by the sentence imposed by the court.

The family's lawsuit also does not dispute that a governor has broad constitutional powers to pardon criminals, commute sentences or grant clemency for whatever reasons he chooses.

Prosecutors say Esteban Nunez, Ryan Jett and two friends, all from Sacramento, were angry after being refused entry to the party on Oct. 4, 2008, when they crossed paths with Luis Santos and his friends and attacked the unarmed group.

Jett admitted stabbing Santos in the chest. Santos died in the arms of a friend.

Prosecutors say Esteban Nunez and the others fled and later tried to conceal evidence by dumping their knives in the Sacramento River and burning their bloodied clothes with gasoline.

Esteban Nunez was arrested the same year his father retired from the Assembly, because of term limits. He served three, two-year terms and was speaker from 2004-2008.