Fred Santos couldn't believe his eyes.
Standing in a cramped hallway outside a courtroom in Sacramento, he and his wife, Kathy, had just won the first round in their lawsuit against former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger for not telling them that he was shortening the prison sentence of Esteban Nuñez, who was involved in murdering their son Luis three years ago near a fraternity party at San Diego State University.
And there in the hallway, the Santoses saw him — with his hand on his heart amid a rabid swarm of reporters: Esteban Nuñez's father, former Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez. To them and many others, he was talking shit.
“When you're dealing with a district attorney,” Nuñez told reporters, “like we did in San Diego, who clearly, you know, has aspirations and has always had aspirations for higher office, the approach that they took to my son's case, and in particular to him, irrespective of the facts of the actual case — they picked on my son from day one.”
As for Santos' lawsuit, Nuñez called it “not a reason to use taxpayers' money in the courtroom, certainly.”
Dressed in a dark blazer and yellow shirt, Santos' face turned red with anger.
“He says my lawsuit is a waste of taxpayer money,” Santos tells L.A. Weekly. “Well, I know why he doesn't want this case to be resolved in court. It's because he believes that justice should not be done in the courtroom but should be done by dirty politicians behind closed doors. Because that's what he's already done, and that's how his way of justice is handled.”
On Schwarzenegger's last day in the governor's mansion, he signed an order to commute Esteban Nuñez's prison term by more than half, from 16 to seven years. He did not tell the victim's family or prosecutors ahead of time.
Schwarzenegger later told Newsweek that he reduced the prison sentence because he was good friends with Fabian Nuñez. Now Santos and San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, who is running for mayor in San Diego, are each suing the state of California and Schwarzenegger for violating Marsy's Law, a constitutional amendment approved in 2008 by voters, which requires victims to be informed of any “postconviction release decision.”
They want to overturn the commutation of Esteban Nuñez's prison sentence and have the court impose the original sentence of 16 years.
Fabian Nuñez's comments angered Santos and elicited a speedy response from Dumanis, who said, “The sole purpose of both the criminal prosecution and the civil case filed by our office is to bring justice to the victims of this violent crime, and their families. The DA's office makes prosecutorial decisions based on the evidence and the law, treating defendants the same regardless of who they may be related to.”
Nuñez's comments — accusing Dumanis of targeting his son because Nuñez is a politician — are somewhat puzzling.
Why criticize the DA for politicizing the case, especially after Schwarzenegger admitted that he was trying to help Nuñez, his friend and political ally, by shortening Esteban Nuñez's sentence?
“I feel good about the decision,” Schwarzenegger told Newsweek. “I happen to know the kid really well. I don't apologize about it. … 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.”
Fabian Nuñez, now a partner at the high-powered political consulting firm of Mercury Public Affairs, has not said why he attacked Dumanis and the validity of Santos' lawsuit that day outside the courtroom. He did not respond to the Weekly's request for comment.
“I'm not a psychologist or psychiatrist,” Santos says, “so I can't even think why a man who works for a public relations firm would make those moves. It makes no sense, especially since he's the one who politicized this case from the start, getting L.A. Mayor [Antonio] Villaraigosa to write a letter to the court during the criminal proceedings, declaring Fabian's son innocent even before any of the evidence was heard in court. Maybe Fabian Nuñez said it because he wants to keep his name in the public eye. I have no idea.”
For the most part, neither politicians nor political foes are willing to blast Nuñez for his comments. Even Sal Russo, the famously outspoken Republican strategist who has no reason to coddle Nuñez, takes a soft line.
“I guess I saw his remarks in more human terms than political terms,” Russo says. “I saw it as a painful statement by a father. I would expect him to stick up for his son and see the good in him more so than others.”
At best, Santos suggests, Nuñez's hurtful comments may have been aimed at trying to shift the focus and the blame onto Dumanis and away from the issues at the heart of Santos' lawsuit: victims' rights.
On Oct. 4, 2008, Nuñez, 19 at the time, and a pack of friends — Ryan Jett, Rafael Garcia and Leshanon Thomas — descended upon San Diego State University looking to party. Drunk, and with three of them carrying knives, they were upset after being turned away from a fraternity for not being “Greek,” and talked about finding someone to fight. At about 2 a.m., they found that someone in the slightly built, unarmed Luis Santos, and what started as an argument ended with a knife being plunged into the left ventricle of Santos' heart.
Not bothering to check whether Santos could be helped, Nuñez and his crew fled, driving 500 miles north back to Sacramento. As Christine Pelisek reported for the Weekly on April 23, 2010, when Esteban Nuñez learned what they had done, he did not skip a beat —he finished packing for a previously planned move back into his parents' million-dollar home and schemed to destroy the evidence. Then Jett, Garcia and Nuñez drove to the Sacramento River, burned their bloodstained clothes and tossed their knives into the current.
Thomas — the only one of the four who was unarmed the night Santos was murdered — later told police that Nuñez said he would “take the rap,” and that “hopefully his dad would take care of it.”
Throughout the preliminary stages of the criminal case, no testimony or evidence emerged that Nuñez expressed remorse in the hours and days after taking Santos' life.
In early December 2008, Nuñez and his friends were charged with one count of murder and three counts of assault with a deadly weapon. Before a bail hearing that same month, about 70 people involved in government and politics, including Villaraigosa, mailed letters to the court that vouched for Nuñez and his family.
It appeared the letters were successful when the judge reduced Nuñez's bail from $2 million to $1 million. State Assemblyman Kevin de León wrote that Esteban was “considerate, gentle and well-mannered.” Villaraigosa called him “a young man of good and upright character.”
The young black man who did not carry a weapon, Leshanor Thomas, a former homecoming king, became one symbol of the inequities in the case when his retired Army sergeant dad could not raise the reduced $1 million bail. Thomas spent five months in jail awaiting trial. Nuñez and Garcia were freed after eight days.
It soon became clear that Nuñez's good friend Ryan Jett was the one who had delivered the fatal blow to Santos and that Nuñez had drunkenly stabbed and injured two of Santos' friends. In order to avoid a possible life sentence, Nuñez accepted a plea bargain: He pled guilty to voluntary manslaughter and two counts of assault. Under that deal, he received the maximum of 16 years.
“Nobody forced Fabian Nuñez's son to sign his name and make a plea deal,” Fred Santos says. “I don't see how the politics that Mr. Nuñez is complaining about could have forced his son to plead guilty. [Fabian] Nuñez has inserted himself into the situation, saying this all has to do with who he is, but it has nothing to do with who he is and everything to do with the fact that his son was involved in a murder.”
In the weeks since Fabian Nuñez made his comments at the Sacramento courthouse, Fred Santos and his wife say they have felt more alone than ever in their fight to overturn Schwarzenegger's commutation, forever grieving the loss of their son.
“You will never recover when your child dies, regardless of how they die,” Santos says. “At night, my wife and I and our daughter sit alone in our home, thinking, 'Is this worth all the heartache to keep fighting?' But then we think, 'If we don't, who will seek justice for our son?' We're no heroes, we're doing this mostly for our son and for ourselves.”
All crime victims in California, however, may soon benefit from the Santos' pain.
A bill is sailing through the state Legislature, co-sponsored by Republican Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher and Democratic Assemblyman Marty Block, both representing districts near San Diego, which would require an applicant for a prison-sentence commutation to notify the district attorney 10 days before the governor acts. The district attorney would be required to notify victims or their family, giving them the chance to submit a written statement to the governor and have that statement considered.
So far, the bill has passed through the Assembly and several subcommittees in the Senate. When the Legislature reconvenes in August, the bill will go to a Senate floor vote and, if approved, to Gov. Brown's desk.
“The bill has moved through the legislative process without any major hurdles,” says Block's spokesman, Mike Naple, “and there hasn't been any opposition holding it up. All signs are looking good.”
But Fred Santos says Marsy's Law already requires that victims be notified of a commutation, so the legislation is redundant and unnecessary. Schwarzenegger, he says, owed him a call before he slipped the commutation through in his final hours as governor.
“It's basic human decency,” Santos says. “Someone's loved one has been murdered and now you're going to reduce the sentence — shouldn't someone ask how the victim's family feels about this? Shouldn't they at least ask that question? That has to be better than saying, 'To hell with the victim, let's give the murderer a break.' The legislation is just so there's no excuses and eliminates the gray area people may think exists.”
The next court hearing in the Santoses' lawsuit is scheduled for August. And Santos fully expects Nuñez to keep flapping his gums.
“I would be shocked if he didn't do it again,” Santos says.
Reach the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.