In California, the rights of crime victims pretty much fly under the radar.
After all, we have a Victim's Bill of Rights, which voters approved as a constitutional amendment in 2008, and for the most part, advocates say, district attorneys do a decent job of keeping victims informed and part of the overall process.
A recent lawsuit, however, filed by the parents of Luis Santos, who were blindsided when former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger on his last day in office reduced the prison sentence of Esteban Nunez, son of Schwarzenegger's old political ally Fabian Nunez, may transform California into ground zero for victims' rights when it comes to a governor's authority to commute prison sentences without telling the victim or victim's family.
“It's an example of shutting victims out of the process, which is really what the victims' rights movement has worked against since the beginning,” Susan Howley, director of public policy for the National Center for Victims of Crime in Washington D.C., tells LA Weekly.
Santos was killed in 2008 during a confrontation with a group of guys, including Esteban Nunez, in San Diego. Nunez later pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to 16 years in prison. Schwarzenegger cut the sentence to seven years.
Under California law, victims have the right to be heard at any “post- conviction release decision.” Santos' father, Fred, says that he didn't get the opportunity to have his voice heard because he only found out about Schwarzenegger's decision from a reporter after the sentence reduction was a done deal.
“Even more than the outcome of a case, victims want to know that the process was fair,” says Howley, “and if victims are not kept informed, if they are not allowed to be heard on matters that impact their interests, they can't trust that the system was fair because they certainly know that it couldn't have included all viewpoints. Anytime you have a government process which is not transparent, then you open yourself up to suspicions.”
Howley says that roughly half the states in the country have laws that specifically give victims rights in the pardon or commutation process. She argues that victims should at least have the right to be notified of a potential sentence reduction and to be able to submit a written statement and have that statement given consideration.
Through their lawsuit, the Santos family is asking the court to nullify Schwarzenegger's sentence reduction and reimpose the original 16-year sentence. In the long run, however, this case could potentially lead to greater specificity with regard to victims' rights and take away a governor's ability to make 11th hour pardons or commutations without telling anyone.
“Sometimes,” says Howley, “it takes a case where a victim's rights were trampled before everyone's eyes are opened.”