Esteban Nuez, center, at a 2009 preliminary hearing in the case. (Denis Poroy / Associated…)
The San Diego County district attorney has filed a civil suit aimed at overturning then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's last-minute reduction of the prison sentence of the son of former Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez in the slaying of a college student.
On his last day in office, the governor reduced the sentence of Esteban Nuñez from 16 years to seven. The decision was made without consulting with prosecutors in the case, angering Dist. Atty. Bonnie Dumanis and the family of the victim, Luis Santos.
In the civil suit, announced Wednesday, Dumanis argues that Schwarzenegger had a legal obligation to notify prosecutors and the families of the victims. Santos was killed in a late-night street brawl outside San Diego State. Nuñez pleaded guilty in 2010 to voluntary manslaughter and assault with a deadly weapon.
The suit is considered the first of its kind, Dumanis said. Santos died of a stab wound to the heart; three friends were wounded in the 2008 attack by Nuñez and three of his friends, who were angry at being turned away from a fraternity party. Nuñez stabbed one victim in the stomach, while a friend fatally stabbed another in the heart.
Caryn B. Sanders, Nuñez's lawyer, said the district attorney "may not even have standing to seek this type of relief."
"While appreciating the political pressure the district attorney is under, we do not believe she has any grounds or even procedure to do this," Sanders said in a statement.
In reducing the sentence, Schwarzenegger argued that Nuñez deserved less prison time than the co-defendant who admitted delivering the fatal knife blow to Santos.
The lawsuit names the governor, Nuñez, the director of the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and the warden of Mule Creek State Prison, where Nuñez is serving his time.
Dumanis said Marsy's Law, meant to protect the rights of crime victims, requires a governor to notify prosecutors and family members. The civil suit could face a difficult legal precedent: that the right of governors to grant pardons and sentence reductions has been considered unlimited and not subject to review.
The governor, Dumanis said, is given that power to help correct miscarriages of justice.
"Instead, this last-minute commutation made without all the facts or input from the parties only fueled the public mistrust of government and greatly diminished justice," Dumanis said.
Part of the public anger has come from the fact that Schwarzenegger, a Republican, and Fabian Nuñez, a Democrat from Los Angeles, were considered political allies even though they were from different political parties.
Schwarzenegger later justified his commutation order, saying that "of course you help a friend" and that he felt good about the decision.
"I understand people's disappointments. I understand the parents' anger. I would probably feel the same way," Schwarzenegger told Newsweek in an article published last month. "My office definitely made a mistake in not notifying the parents beforehand ... and I'm ultimately responsible.
"I feel good about the decision.... I happen to know the kid really well. I don't apologize about it," Schwarzenegger said. "There's criticism out there. I think it's just because of our working relationship and all that. It maybe was kind of saying, 'That's why he did it.' Well, hello! I mean, of course you help a friend."