Reporting from Sacramento and San Diego — On his final night in office, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger reduced the prison sentence of the son of former Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez, Esteban Nuñez, who had pleaded guilty to participating in the killing of a college student.
The governor also granted several other commutations and pardons and gave plum government appointments to political allies and the spouse of his chief of staff. Schwarzenegger announced the moves in a batch of eleventh-hour press releases e-mailed to reporters.
Esteban Nuñez, now 21, was sentenced to 16 years in prison for his role in the stabbing death of Luis Santos. Schwarzenegger cut the prison term to seven years, noting in a statement that Nuñez, although involved in the fight that ended in Santos' death, did not inflict the fatal knife wound. Schwarzenegger cited a finding by the court that it was Esteban Nuñez's friend Ryan Jett who stabbed Santos, "severing his heart."
"I do not discount the gravity of the offense," the governor'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."
Schwarzenegger's action — one of 10 commutations issued by Schwarzenegger during his tenure — infuriated the victim's family.
"We are totally outraged," said Fred Santos, father of Luis Santos. "For the governor to wait until the last day in hopes it would fly under the radar is an absolute injustice."
Santos, a software engineer in Concord in Northern California, said Esteban Nuñez "had already gotten lucky once" when prosecutors accepted a plea bargain that allowed him to avoid standing trial on murder charges, which could have led to a life sentence.
Santos said the family was not warned about the impending commutation and learned about it Sunday from reporters.
"The governor did not even have the courtesy to notify the victim's family," he said. "This is dirty politics: cutting backroom deals. I guess if you're the son of somebody important, you can kill someone and get all sorts of breaks."
A spokesman for Schwarzenegger said late Sunday that the governor's office would have no further comment.
Fabian Nuñez, a Democrat who is no longer in the Legislature, grew close to the governor while he was speaker. The two worked together to pass the state's landmark global warming law, a signature achievement of Schwarzenegger's tenure.
Nuñez is now a business partner of the governor's chief political advisor at the consulting firm Mercury Public Affairs.
The stabbing took place in October 2008, after Esteban Nuñez and three friends had spent a night partying and drinking near San Diego State University and set upon Santos, a student at San Diego Mesa College, when they were refused entry into a fraternity party.
In exchange for having a murder charge dropped, Nuñez pleaded guilty to manslaughter and assault. But he received the same sentence as Jett, who admitted stabbing Santos.
After the judge imposed the sentences in June, Nuñez's father said angrily that his son had been led to believe by the judge that he would receive a sentence of seven to 11 years and that his son would not have pleaded guilty if he had known the sentence would be 16 years.
Brad Patton, Esteban Nuñez's trial attorney, said he felt his client was given the maximum because the judge was concerned about appearing to be lenient to the son of a powerful political figure.
"The governor's decision is a reflection of what this case would have been like if politics had not been involved," Patton said.
Two other inmates' sentences were commuted along with that of Nuñez on Sunday. They were Sara Jessimy Kruzan, who shot and killed her pimp when she was a 16-year-old prostitute in 1994, and Alberto Magana Torres, who said he shot and killed Juan Atrisco in February 1999 in self-defense, fearing that an intoxicated Atrisco was trying to run him over with a car.
Torres' prison sentence for personally discharging a firearm was shortened to 10 years from 25 years to life. Kruzan's sentence for first-degree murder was reduced from life without the possibility of parole to 25 years to life in prison with the possibility of parole.
The governor pardoned Rose Ann Parker, a battered woman who shot her abuser in October 1986, on the condition that she not incur future arrests or convictions. He gave unconditional pardons to eight others Sunday, all for comparatively minor offenses including drug possession and sale, insurance fraud and burglary.
In all of the cases, the governor cited evidence that the convicts had rehabilitated themselves.
Schwarzenegger also appointed top aides and political allies to several key positions in state government Sunday as well as late last week. Many were given posts that Schwarzenegger had earlier tried to eliminate from state government, arguing that they were a waste of taxpayer money.