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The Nunez factor

Schwarzenegger's sentence reduction for ex-speaker's son is big mistake.

January 04, 2011

The clemency power of presidents and governors has been abused for political purposes more times than we can list here, but former President Clinton is among the few whose last-minute pardons were so ethically suspect that they permanently tarnished his legacy. By commuting the sentence of former Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez's son, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger may have repeated Clinton's mistake.

Nuñez, who is now a business partner with Schwarzenegger's chief political advisor, worked closely with the governor during his term as speaker. His son Esteban, now 21, was sentenced to 16 years in prison after getting into a knife fight on the San Diego State University campus in 2008 in which 22-year-old Luis Santos was stabbed to death.

Was the sentence unduly harsh? The elder Nuñez argues that it was, and on his last night in office Sunday, Schwarzenegger showed that he agreed by cutting the term to seven years. Esteban Nuñez, the argument goes, didn't wield the knife that killed Santos, had no prior criminal record and had been assured by the trial judge that he wouldn't be treated the same as Santos' actual killer — ex-convict Ryan Jett, who got the same 16-year term as Nuñez. The defense attorney argues that Nuñez was treated unfairly because the judge didn't want to be seen as showing leniency to the son of a powerful politician; by commuting the young man's sentence, Schwarzenegger was thus pulling away the thumb of politics that had been tilting the scales of justice.

We're not quite buying that theory. The younger Nuñez is no prince. He and his friends went looking for a fight after being kicked out of a campus frat party, and according to prosecutors, Nuñez stabbed two other victims, who survived. He also allegedly destroyed evidence by burning clothing worn on the night of the fight and throwing knives into the Sacramento River. Schwarzenegger issued only 10 commutations during his tenure, and it strains credibility to suppose that Esteban Nuñez would have been found worthy of such consideration if his father didn't have a personal relationship with the governor. The commutation was a close judgment call, but given that it benefitted one of his politically connected friends, it leaves a very bad smell.

There are doubtless worthier inmates. We can think of one off the top of our heads: Kevin Cooper, who remains on death row despite significant doubts raised by a federal judge about the fairness of his murder conviction. Schwarzenegger ignored the considerable evidence in Cooper's favor, meaning that California may soon be guilty of executing an innocent man. Too bad for Cooper that his dad never smoked cigars with the governor.

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