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Governator Flubbed His Exit, Won't Be Back

A Commentary By Debra J. Saunders

Friday, January 07, 2011

In his last remaining hours as California governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger issued three sentence commutations. The most notable went to the son of former Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, Esteban Nunez, who is serving time for voluntary manslaughter.

Esteban Nunez's legal problems began in San Diego on Oct. 4, 2008.  After Nunez, then 19, and some friends were not admitted to a fraternity party, they went looking for a fight. They found a group of students who also had been drinking. After a short but fatal clash, Luis Dos Santos, 22, lay dying.

Schwarzenegger wrote that he reduced Nunez's sentence from 16 years to seven years because Nunez was not "the actual killer" and his sentence was "disproportionate" in that it was the same term given to Nunez's friend, Ryan Jett, "despite the evidence that Jett was a leader and instigator" who stabbed Santos in the heart. Also, Nunez had no criminal history, while Jett was a convicted felon out on probation at the time of the crime.

Schwarzenegger overlooked a few items. First, the sentence was the result of a plea agreement. Nunez knew that in pleading guilty, he could face as much as 16 years behind bars. By agreeing to this deal, he avoided a jury trial that could have put him in prison for life.

Second, while Nunez was not Santos' killer, he was carrying a knife, which he used to stab two of Santos' friends, one of them in the stomach.

As Santos lay dying, Nunez, Jett and two friends -- who didn't stab anyone, but pleaded guilty to lesser charges -- could have called for an ambulance. Instead, they ran -- all the way to Sacramento.

Then they tried to cover up their crime.

Nunez's attorney Brad Patton has argued that a San Diego judge meted out an excessive sentence to a "19-year-old drunk kid" with no prior criminal record but an excess of "college-age bravado." Patton added, "Santos and his friends were instigators as well."

Fred Santos of Concord will have none of that. Jett, Nunez and company, he told me, were "looking for trouble" -- which is why three of them carried knives -- while his son's group was unarmed. "This was a deliberate act."

Patton also argued that if Nunez didn't have a big-shot father, he'd have received a shorter sentence. I am skeptical, but I do think that if Nunez didn't have a politically powerful father -- who now is a political operative in a firm with Schwarzenegger guru Adam Mendelsohn -- his sentence never would have attracted Schwarzenegger's attention.

I've been a huge proponent of the use of the political pardon: I don't think it is used enough. And I agree with political science professor and Pardon Power blogger P.S. Ruckman, who noted that famous people, relatives and political supporters "deserve fair consideration, too."

That said, if an executive rarely uses his pardon power, yet magically manifests outrage over "excessive" sentences only for the scion of a fellow big shot and buddy, and he doesn't issue a commutation until he is on his way out the door, there will be hell to pay.

Schwarzenegger didn't even bother calling the Santos family first.  "He knows this was a bad move," Santos told me. "That's why they did it how they did it. They did it in a very sneaky way."

He started office with such promise. But he exited like a con man on the run.

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