As Arnold Schwarzenegger celebrates the release of his new film, Terminator Genisys, the former governor of California is being criticized by Fred and Kathy Santos.  The Santos’ believe that the former Republican Governor of California stole justice from their son.

“He plays a hero in the movies, yet in real life he’s not a hero,” Fred Santos said, “He’s a dirty politician.”

Schwarzenegger, as his last act as Governor, commuted the sentence of Esteban Nunez.  Nunez pled guilty to the stabbing death of Luis Santos in 2008.  Most of the criticism comes from the fact that Schwarzenegger gave no forewarning to prosecutors or the victim’s family.  However, there was never any proof that Nunez was the one who stabbed Santos.

“My son (was) stabbed in the heart when he was alive,” Fred Santos told CNN, “Schwarzenegger stabbed him in the back…”

The Santos and San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis are accusing Schwarzenegger of political cronyism.  Esteban Nunez is the son of Fabian Nunez, a powerful Democrat.

It was October 2008, just 4 years after Fabian Nunez was sworn in as speaker of the California Assembly, when prosecutors alleged that Esteban Nunez, 19, and Ryan Jett were loading up on alcohol.  They had just been denied entry into a frat party near San Diego State University (neither were students) and they were angry.  The Sacramento natives boasted, according to court records, that they wanted to show them how it was done in “Sac town”.

“They decided they were going to either burn a frat house or they were going to stab some people,” Dumanis said.

The drunk pair walked the streets and at 2 a.m. encountered Luis Santos and a friend.  The 4 of them got into an altercation and Luis called over several more friends.

“It was a melee basically,” Dumanis said.

Luis was stabbed, so was another boy, and one other guy was injured when he was punched in the eye.  Luis’ friends called 911.  A knife pierced the left ventricle of Luis’ heart. He died at the scene.  In the fight, only one person saw who stabbed Luis and they said it was Jett.  Later that night, Nunez, Jett, and two others headed north to Sacramento.  Jett and Nunez purchased a Big Gulp cup at a 7-Eleven and filled it with $1.30 of gasoline.  They used it to burn the weapons and bloody clothes, throwing them into the Sacramento River.  People were able to identify the 4 from the surveillance video.  The two, who weren’t involved in the stabbing, received probation in exchange for their testimony.

Fred Santos told CNN he had concerns from the beginning that politics would influence the system.  He said he grew up in Asia where politicians are routinely dirty.  “I asked if the judge was a Democrat,” he said, believing Fabian Nunez’s power in that party would influence the case.  He said he was relieved to find out that the judge was Republican.  Arnold Schwarzenegger and Fabian Nunez did not get along in their first few years as colleagues.  The Republic governor attempted to bypass Nunez several times with failing results.  Nunez constantly criticized the Governor.  And Schwarzenegger criticized in return.

But, with the government failing, Schwarzenegger instituted a policy shift and began to work with the Democrats, which control the legislature at the time.  He conceded his mistakes and said that working together was beneficial for everyone.  No one would describe their relationship as particularly friendly, but they did help pass many groundbreaking pieces of legislature including the highest minimum wage in the nation.

In 2008, Schwarzenegger never involved himself in the Nunez family’s issues.  With his son facing first-degree murder charges, Fabian Nunez and his allies wrote letters to the judge, including then L.A. mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, vouching for Esteban’s character.  On official mayoral stationery, Villaraigosa wrote that Esteban was “a young man of good and upright character.”

In 2010, Esteban Nunez and Ryan Jett were just about to get their trial underway when they were presented with a plea deal.  The pair faced first-degree or second-degree murder charges, which would have resulted, if convicted, in either a sentence of 25 years to life or 15 years to life.  Jury selection was underway, but prosecutors knew that they had a weak case.  If the pair pled guilty to voluntary manslaughter they would face a maximum of 16 years in prison.  The Santos family wasn’t happy, but they knew it would result in a quick close.

“So we will not be spending the rest of our lives going to court…listening to them fight their appeal if they were convicted,” Fred Santos said.

The case wasn’t airtight, the main question of who actually stabbed Luis was up for debate.  Only one witness could testify that they saw who stabbed whom and they said that Jett was the killer and Nunez stabbed the boys who survived their injuries.  Was that enough to convict Nunez of first or second-degree murder?  The prosecutors were concerned.  Nunez and Jett agreed to the deal.  Other prosecutors in the office were angry at the result.  Rick Clabby, a deputy district attorney at the time, said “I couldn’t believe we were giving this case away.”  Clabby believed the evidence was strong enough for a second-degree conviction.  Clabby also said that Nunez was charged with conspiracy,

“It didn’t matter if the jury couldn’t decide who was the stabber.”

Dumanis stressed the emotional toll on the victims as part of the reason why she came to the decision to offer a deal.  Nunez and Jett were sentenced to a maximum of 16 years.  The family said it was “bitter satisfaction”.  Dumanis now says that “had I known what was going to happen,” she would never have offered the plea deal.

In 2011, six months after the plea deal, a reporter called the Santos family to get a comment on the commutation of Nunez.

“That’s been the story of our life, a reporter calls the house and gives me information,” said Kathy Santos.

Minutes before leaving office, Schwarzenegger announced the commutation in an emailed news release. Esteban Nunez’s sentence had been cut in half.  Fabian Nunez has repeatedly denied that he cashed in any favors or forced the former Governor to grant him a favor.  Nunez has always maintained that his son got a raw deal because of his status in society.  He wasn’t the killer, according to witnesses, yet he receives the same sentence as the killer.

“From the beginning, my son was the headliner in the case,” Nunez told KCRA in 2011, “This has gone from aiding and abetting to him being labeled a killer…”

He argues that everyone from the Santos family to the District Attorney have boiled down the case to a convenient narrative based upon his political power:  Esteban Nunez received a commutation of half of his sentence, so it must be political influence there can be no other explanation.  In reality, Fabian Nunez said, “the case is more complicated”.  He said his son sought clemency to right the wrongs perpetrated by an “overzealous District Attorney” and a “conservative judge” who were just wanting to score points and grab headlines.  “My son did not want to take the deal” if it meant he had to accept 16 years behind bars, Nunez said. “He was going to go to trial” and defend his position.  He said his son is not a monster.

“This was a fight among a large group” of people, Fabian Nunez, said referring to the fact that Luis Santos called more friends over in order to outnumber Nunez and Jett.  He also added that the other two boys, who were given probation, were just as responsible.  They also participated in destroying the evidence that Jett murdered Santos.

Nunez filed a brief with the court objecting to the sentence stating that unlike Jett, Nunez “had no criminal record” and he was not the cause of Santos’ death, Jett was.  Fabian Nunez said that his son was misled by the judge, whom he said, “told us that [he] would treat Esteban differently” from Jett because he didn’t kill Santos.

“He told the attorney one thing in chambers, then went into open court and said another,” Fabian Nunez said.

The judge denies making those statements.  The judge also refused to reconsider the sentence.  Esteban Nunez and his attorneys continued to fight his sentence until December 6th when they filed a motion to end their appeals and filed for clemency.  Less than a month later, he received it.

“I believe Nunez’s sentence is excessive,” wrote Schwarzenegger in his commutation letter, citing the lack of criminal history and the fact that Jett was the killer.

D.A. Dumanis questions whether Nunez filed the correct paperwork to receive a commutation.  “He took a political favor and played God, and took justice away from this family,” claimed Nina Solarno, the Santos family attorney, who is also a board member for the advocacy group Crime Victims United.  In a private letter to the Santos family, Schwarzenegger wrote: “I recognize that the last minute nature of my final acts as Governor provided you no notice, no time to prepare for or absorb the impact of this decision. For that, I apologize.”  The family said they do not accept the apology.

D.A. Dumanis and the Santos family filed a lawsuit against the Governor’s actions saying he violated “Marsy’s Law”.  The law mandates that victims’ families be given a right to speak in all proceedings related to the case.  “When a governor commutes a sentence in such a flagrantly political way, it puts everybody in the system on notice that their (deals) are not safe,” Dumanis said.

The judges agreed that Schwarzenegger’s move was “unjust”, but concluded that it was legal.  They ruled that “Marsy’s Law” applied to parole hearings, as there are no proceedings for an executive clemency.  They didn’t give up; they succeeded in changing the California law, which now requires the Governor to give 10 days notice to prosecutors and victims’ families before issuing clemency.  Solarno said, “…we want an acknowledgement that the family’s rights were taken…and that from this day forward your case is setting precedent that other victims are going to be heard.”

“I get their pain,” Fabian Nunez said, adding that his attempt to reach out to the Santos family wasn’t accepted. “I get to see my son, they don’t get to see theirs…but I make no apologies for fighting for justice for my son.”

“We weren’t there to protect Luis, to prevent him from being killed,” Fred Santos said, “This is the only thing we can do for him.”  The real killer, Jett’s sentence was unchanged.  Nunez will be eligible for release beginning in April of 2016.


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