DA Files Lawsuit To Void Commutation Of Esteban Nunez's Prison Sentence
There's a new wrinkle in a story that caused a stir early this year - the commutation of the sentence of Estaban Nunez. He was sentenced to 16 years for the fatal stabbing of a student near SDSU. But right before he left office, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger used his constitutional power and cut Nunez sentence in half.
Now, San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis has filed suit in an effort to get that commutation nullified.
KPBS Reporter Erik Anderson
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CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. There's a new wrinkle in a story that caused a stir early this year. The commutation of the sentence of Esteban N˙Òez. He was sentenced to 16†years for the fatal stabbing of a student near SDSU. But right before, governor Arnold Schwarzenegger left office, he used his constitutional power and reduced N˙Òez' sentence almost by half. Now, San Diego County district attorney Bonnie Dumanis has filed suit in order to get that commutation nullified. Here with more on the story is KPBS reporter, Erik Anderson. Good morning, Erik.
ANDERSON: Good morning, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: Who is Bonnie Dumanis suing?
ANDERSON: Well, she's suing basically four people, entities. We'll say exits for this reason of she's suing the governor of the State of California, who right now is Jerry Brown, we'll get to that in a second. [CHECK AUDIO] the warden of mule creek state prison, and Esteban N˙Òez as a party of interest. And the reason I said we'll get back to the governor part. She can't really sue governor Schwarzenegger for this, former governor Schwarzenegger, because she's not suing the individual. She's not suing Arnold Schwarzenegger as a private citizen. She's suing the office of the govern, which is where this commutation came from. And [CHECK AUDIO].
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You were at a news conference yesterday where this lawsuit was announced to the public, what does the family of the victim, Luis Santos, what do they have to say about this lawsuit?
ANDERSON: Well, as you can imagine, and they've said it repeatedly in the time since the commutation came down. They're not very happy with governor Schwarzenegger. They feel like they were kind of left out of the process. They feel like they should have been notified. And you can sense that they still carry a lot of anger about this issue. In fact, listen to Kathy Santos, the mother of Luis Santos who spoke briefly yesterday. She said that she felt like she was victimized twice, first by the all crime that claimed the life of her son, and second by the governor when he commuted the sentence of Esteban N˙Òez. And so I think that there's still a lot of things for that family and for the victims to really kind of work through.
CAVANAUGH: And they -- are they in some sense joining with Bonnie Dumanis in this lawsuit?
ANDERSON: They are not technically parties to the lawsuit. It's a lawsuit that's coming from the District Attorney. But they did file a similar legal action after the governor -- challenging the commutation under Marcy's law.
CAVANAUGH: I see.
ANDERSON: Just like the District Attorney did. What the District Attorney though is doing is saying, look, I'm a district attorney in the case of interest, and I'm taking an official position in an effort to change the way these commutations are done in the future. There's also you know, a legislative effort. All of these things, all of these things that Bonnie Dumanis is doing right now are not things that she decided to do this week. It's part of a -- several things that she's had under way.
NEW SPEAKER: We right away started working on legislation to prevent this from happening to anyone in the future. And that is being -- going through the legislature right now with assemblyman Block spear heading that with assemblyman Fletcher. And it has passed out of the assembly. But all along what we were concerned about is how can we right this wrong for these families here? And not just in prospective relationship to this, but to really have some assistance here. Because this was not right, it was not just, and it needs to be changed.
ANDERSON: And so she's looking to change that with this legislation. And like I said, the family has filed a similar suit saying this they should have been notified. There's a chance that those two pieces of litigation might be combined at some time down the road because they're pretty similar. The family has also filed a wrongful death suit, they're seeking reparations for the Los of the life of their son.
CAVANAUGH: Now, let's take a step back. The governor does have the constitutional authority to reduce sentences, to grant clemency, that's part of the California constitution, right?
ANDERSON: It is, and the governor has very broad powers to do so. It's kind of sweeping powers, and what this lawsuit does, it challenges those, and it's actually asking the constitution of the State of California to be changed to require future commutations to include the notification of victims. And it's not clear legally whether or not a court is willing to mess with the governor's ability to commute sentences. So I think that's where the legal question is. It's not clear whether the Court is gonna side with Dumanis on this particular point, whether or not the chemical she made under the California victim's bill of rights, which is Marcy's law, whether that is a valid way to challenge the governor's authority to commute sentences.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I remember --
ANDERSON: The Courts will decide on that.
CAVANAUGH: I remember in January, San Diego County district attorney Bonnie Dumanis joined us on the program and talked about the fact that she was not pleased the way this commutation had been handled for Esteban N˙Òez. But she did also tell us that governor Schwarzenegger apologized, gave her a call, gave the Santos family a call after the fact, and apologized for not informing them beforehand that he was going to commute this sentence. And it was thought at the time that the matter was finished. Did we know of any reason why now this suit is being filed?
ANDERSON: I don't think the matter was ever finished. I think that when the governor -- and this is not -- I don't have this basis in fact, but I think what happened was when the governor admitted that he may have done something wrong, in essence what he was doing was giving legal standing to someone to challenge what it is that he did, and maybe that was the kind of action needed to encourage them to move forward. Interesting thing, and this is a widely sited quote that the governor gave that to a news week reporter recently, where he, you know, frankly said that he did this because he was friends with Fabian N˙Òez, the former assembly speaker of the house, that he knew Esteban N˙Òez personally, he did it because he -- he said that Esteban N˙Òez didn't commit the crime -- he didn't commit the action that led to the death.
ANDERSON: He didn't stab the young man who died in the San Diego state university camp U, and he was getting the same penalty. You may not recall that when this trial was going on, the prison sentence was a plea agreement that Esteban N˙Òez agreed to get out from under the murder charge that he was facing. So he agreed guilty to manslaughter, get a [CHECK AUDIO] appeal agreement, that appeal is still in the works, and then came the commutation, which the governor has admitted he did as a favor to a friend. And I think that admission, that public admission really enflamed the Santos family. And the families of the other victims. There were other victims, not just the young man who died. Three other young men were stabbed as well.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with KPBS reporter Eric Anderson am we're talking about San Diego County district attorney Bonnie Dumanis' decision to challenge the commutation of the sentence of Esteban N˙Òez. Give us details if you would, Eric, of the crime, that we're talking about, the foundation of this, the crime that Esteban N˙Òez was convicted of.
ANDERSON: Well, I think it seems from a party that was being held near the San Diego state university campus, so [CHECK AUDIO] was at this party, Esteban N˙Òez and his friends, several of them tries to get in the party, they were refused entry, there were some hurt feeling, allegedly. Later there was a confrontation, and Luis Santos was stabbed in the heart. Several of the other people with him were stabbed. Victims who were at the news conference yesterday, they recovered but Santos's wounds were fatal. He was stabbed in the heart, and he died as a result. And Esteban and his friends returned to the Sacramento area where they live. They were later, up, identified, and arrested and brought back and brought to trial here.
CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering how this law called Marcy's law, how does that enter into this suit? I know it's the foundation, but what part of it is Bonnie Dumanis using to claim that the governor violated the law? Well, what Marcy's law is actually a voter passed initiative. It was passed back in 2008 in the State of California by the voters of California, and it's a victim a bill of rights, essentially. And what it is intended to do my reading of it is to include crime victims' families or survivors or the victims themselves in the legal process. It's intended to give them hearing when there is a sentencing. So for example if a crime is committed against you, is, you've been raped or beaten or a member of your family has been killed, when the person who is guilty of that crime is found guilty, you are then given the right to go to the sentencing hearing and explain why you think a particular punishment ought to be meted out, and you are guaranteed that right under Marcy's law. It also is designed to involve parole hearings, so if a convicted criminal is up for parole, the victim's family or victim could come to the parole hearing and state their cases to why the parole should be denied. One effect this has had, by the way, as an aside, it has greatly decreased the number of denial of parole hearing, because the parole is now hearing from the victim's families. But which what is in one, and I think what will be resolved by the legal action is whether or not Marcy's law actually applies to commutations. Whether it's brought enough to include commutations, and whether or not it overrides the governor's ability, which is a pretty sweeping ability to commute a sentence or to parole someone.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So this is the legal avenue that the San Diego district attorney is making.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: To try to reign in the governor's authority to grant these clemencies. There is also, as you mentioned, legislation going through the state assembly that would also require, specifically require the governor to give notice to victims' families if he's going to grant a commutation or clemency.
ANDERSON: Yeah, and as we heard from Bonnie Dumanis, it's legislation that she's worked on with Marty block, who's an assemblyman from the San Diego County area, and Nathan Fletcher, also in the assembly. That bill has passed through the assembly, so now it gets, presumably, consideration in the senate. And the interesting thing here is whether or not it's gonna pass with enough support to potentially override a gubernatorial veto. Because the governor, of course, would have to sign this or pass his judgment on it. And I'm not sure what the position of the governor's office would be on whether or not they would accept more restrictions on their ability to commute crimes. But one thing that the Court has done in the past, and they have been very protective of the governor's right to commute sentences for commutations. And they say that that's clearly a right that the governor has, and it's been protected in the past. So the interesting thing I think will be whether or not to see whether or not this challenge comes up [CHECK AUDIO].
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Indeed, if it gets passed by the governor's -- legislature, signed by the governor, and validated by the Courts. I want to thank you so much, Eric.
ANDERSON: My pleasure.
CAVANAUGH: KPBS reporter, Erik Anderson. If you would like to comment, please go on-line, KPBS.org/These Days. Coming up, silver age yoga. That's as These Days continues here on KPBS.