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Cutting of Nuñez's sentence sparks anger

Outraged officials denounce the last-day prison deal made by Schwarzenegger.

January 04, 2011|By Jack Dolan and Tony Perry

Reporting from Sacramento and San Diego — Outgoing Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's decision to cut the prison sentence that the son of former Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez received for his role in the death of a San Diego man outraged officials in that city, who said Monday they had been blindsided.

The decision "greatly diminishes justice," San Diego County Dist. Atty. Bonnie Dumanis said Monday. "The district attorney's office was not consulted and the decision comes as the appeals process was continuing."

San Diego City Atty. Jan Goldsmith accused Schwarzenegger of reducing the sentence to "help his political crony's son."

"In doing so," said Goldsmith, "he undermined the judicial system and has jeopardized public safety.... I speak for the overwhelming majority of San Diegans in stating that we are appalled and angry." Dumanis and Goldsmith are former Superior Court judges.

The allegation that Esteban Nuñez received special treatment at least partly echoed something that the 19-year-old had said after the drunken brawl that led to the death of Luis Santos, according to court records.

After Nuñez and his friends attacked a group of men in October 2008, leaving one dead, they hopped in a car and drove 500 miles north to Sacramento to burn their clothes and throw their knives in a river. Then, court records show, Nuñez told his friends not to worry, his politically connected father, would get them off the hook.

On Sunday, as one of his last official acts as governor, Schwarzenegger reduced Nuñez's sentence by more than half, from 16 to seven years.

That drew criticism from the victims' relatives, prison rights experts and prosecutors who said that the younger Nuñez benefited from his family name throughout the process and that they wondered why thousands of other prisoners incarcerated on similar charges did not get the same break.

Schwarzenegger "has been denying parole to prisoners who have killed somebody and have been model prisoners for years and years, and he hasn't let them go," said Don Specter of the Prison Law Office in Berkeley, a prisoner's rights advocate.

At the end of November, there were 3,381 people in California's prisons for voluntary manslaughter, to which Nuñez had pleaded guilty. He also pleaded guilty to two counts of assault with a deadly weapon. There were 7,589 people in prison for conviction under the same statute, according to Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

But Schwarzenegger did not intervene on anyone else's behalf.

The well-connected have been weighing in on the younger Nuñez's behalf from early in the case. Before a bail hearing in December 2008, some 70 individuals from government, politics and labor relations sent letters attesting to good character of the Nuñez family and Esteban. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, in his letter, called young Nuñez "a decent and responsible young man."

Judge David Szumowski cut the bail from $2 million to $1 million and Nuñez was allowed to remain free until the trial. During that time, he attended the state Democratic Party's May 2009 golf tournament, spa day and fundraiser at Pebble Beach, hosted by former Assembly Speaker Karen Bass.

Nuñez entered prison on June 30, 2010, and is housed in a "special needs yard" at the Mule Creek state prison, Thornton said. Also housed there are Joseph Lyle Menendez, one of two brothers who became notorious for the murders of their parents in Beverly Hills, and Andrew Luster, the wealthy great-grandson of cosmetics magnate Max Factor. Luster was convicted of serial rape in 2003.

Former Schwarzenegger appointee Roberto Vellanoweth, who killed four people in a 2007 drunk driving accident, is also in the special needs yard at Mule Creek. He wrote to the governor asking for a sentence reduction, which was not granted.

"People think [Nuñez] benefitted from his father's status," said Charles Sevilla, the San Diego attorney who petitioned the governor for the sentence reduction. Instead, Sevilla argues, Nuñez's father's fame worked against him. "I think the system became zealous in its effort not to show favoritism."

Schwarzenegger and Fabian Nuñez worked closely in passing California's landmark environmental regulations, known as AB 32.

In his written commutation order on Nuñez, Schwarzenegger noted that his former political ally's son and his friends had been drinking and were angry about being denied entry to a fraternity party when they launched a premeditated attack on a group of young men near San Diego State University on Oct. 4, 2008. After driving back to Sacramento, the group "went to the Sacramento River, burned their clothes, and threw their knives in the river," the order says.

Nuñez had bragged to his friends that even if they were charged, his father could get them off with a self-defense plea, according to documents filed by prosecutors.

In his Sunday order, Schwarzenegger acknowledged that Esteban Nuñez stabbed one young man in the stomach and "inflicted great bodily harm" on another. But Schwarzenegger argued that Nuñez did not stab the victim who died, Luis Dos Santos, and shouldn't have been given the same sentence as the killer, Ryan Jett.

Schwarzenegger also noted that Nuñez had no prior criminal record, whereas Jett was on probation at the time of the attack.

A spokeswoman for Mercury Public Affairs, the political consulting firm where Fabian Nuñez works, said Nuñez would not comment for this article.

Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear referred questions about how many requests for commutation the governor received this year to the office of Gov. Jerry Brown, who took the oath of office Monday morning.

Brown spokesman Evan Westrup did not respond to a request for the information.

jack.dolan@latimes.com

tony.perry@latimes.com

Staff writer Anthony York contributed to this report.

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