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SD Legal Leaders Blast Sentence Reduction

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Both the San Diego district and city attorneys accused former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger today of undermining justice by sharply reducing the sentence of the son of former Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez for a fatal stabbing near San Diego State University.

San Diego legal leaders blasted a last-minute decision by out-going Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Hours before leaving office, the former governor reduced the 16-year prison sentence meted out to the son of one of Schwarzenegger's political allies.

Schwarzenegger reduced the sentence of 21 year-old Esteban Nunez from 16 years to seven years. Nunez is the son of former California Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez.

He pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter for his role in the stabbing death of a man near the campus of San Diego State University in 2008. San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis and San Diego City Attorney Jan Goldsmith both released statements today condemning the sentence reduction.

Goldsmith says Nunez was lucky to have avoided murder charges in the first place.

"He got his break. And then to get another break from the governor on something was not unusual I think is appalling," said Goldsmith, who was a Superior Court judge at the time of the sentencing.

In her statement, Dumanis says the DA's office was never consulted and the appeals process was continuing.

Nunez pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and two counts of assault with a deadly weapon for a drunken knife fight in which Mesa College student Luis Santos -- also known as Luis Dos Santos -- was killed.

In September, Nunez's attorneys asked Judge Robert F. O'Neill to reduce his sentence, based on comments attributed to the judge before Nunez pleaded guilty.

Attorneys Brad Patton and Charles Sevilla argued that O'Neill had indicated Nunez would get a lighter sentence than Ryan Jett -- a Sacramento resident who pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and assault for instigating the incident in which Santos was killed, two of his friends suffered stab wounds and a third friend suffered an eye injury.

But the judge failed to come through, the attorneys said. O'Neill, however, denied the defense request, saying he had lost jurisdiction over the case because an appeal had already been filed.

"This homicide occurred in the city of San Diego," Goldsmith said in a prepared statement. "I speak for the overwhelming majority of San Diegans in stating that we are appalled and angry over Mr. Schwarzenegger's conduct. It reflects poorly on him, personally, and on his legacy as governor."

Dumanis, whose office prosecuted the case against Nunez and his co-defendants, added in her statement:

"We were shocked to hear of the Governor's last-minute commutation, which greatly diminishes justice for victim Luis Santos and re-victimizes his family and friends. The District Attorney's Office was not consulted and the decision comes as the appeals process was continuing."

The victim's father, Fred Santos, told reporters that he and his wife, Kathy, were "totally outraged" by the commutation, which he said smelled of "dirty politicking."

Fabian Nunez, a Democrat, served as Assembly speaker from 2004 to 2008. He is also a business partner of the governor's top political adviser at the consulting firm Mercury Public Affairs, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Jett -- who had previous felony convictions and was on probation at the time of the fatal stabbing -- was sentenced to 16 years in prison for killing Santos. Two others -- Leshanor Thomas, 21, and 20-year-old Rafael Garcia -- pleaded guilty to lesser charges.

On Oct. 4, 2008, Nunez and Jett fought with Santos and several others near San Diego State University. During the fight, Jett stabbed Santos to death.

Both Jett, 25, and Nunez pleaded guilty and were sentenced to the maximum prison term. Nunez asked that his sentence be shortened on grounds that he received the same penalty as Jett although he had not killed anyone.

"Santos's death is tragic, and I do not discount the gravity of the offense," Schwarzenegger said in his commutation message.

"But given Nunez's limited role in Santos's death, and considering that, unlike Jett, Nunez had no criminal record prior to this offense, I believe Nunez's sentence is excessive. Accordingly, I commute Nunez's sentence to the lower term for the crimes for which he was convicted: seven years in state prison."

The Governor's Office did not say when Nunez might be eligible for parole.

City News Service contributed to this story.

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