As Esteban Nuñez nears release from prison, victim’s family remains outraged
The slain student’s mother did the math a long time ago, so the news she recently received — that convicted killer Esteban Nuñez would soon go free after less than six years in prison — came as no real surprise.
That makes it no easier, Kathy Santos said, to know that a high-level political favor is sending him home at age 27, as her son lies in a grave.
“It makes you sick that something like this can happen, and you have no power,” said Santos, whose 22-year-old son, Luis, a San Diego Mesa College student, was killed by a knife to the heart.
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Prosecutors said Nuñez and a co-defendant, both armed with knives, acted in concert in the attack that killed the unarmed Santos at San Diego State University in October 2008. Charged with murder, the defendants had faced the possibility of life in prison if they went to trial and lost. Instead, they pleaded guilty to lesser charges of voluntary manslaughter and assault. A judge gave them 16 years in prison.
Nuñez had a powerful father, former Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez, and the father had a powerful ally, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who — on his last day in office in 2011 — announced he was reducing the sentence to seven years. With good behavior, it would turn out to be less than six.
“Of course you help a friend,” Schwarzenegger later said, a remark that deepened widespread outrage over the commutation, which was reflected in editorials and denunciations by Republicans and Democrats alike.
The governor argued that Esteban Nuñez should have received a lighter sentence than co-defendant Ryan Jett, because Jett had a prior record and Nuñez did not, and because the prosecution’s theory had been that Jett actually delivered the fatal knife wound.
Prosecutors said it was never clear, however, who stabbed Santos, and that the law should treat the knife-wielding attackers with equal severity.
Fabian Nuñez said the sentencing judge had been too harsh on his son, and politically motivated. “I used my relationship with the governor to help my own son,” he told The Times. “I’d do it again.” Any father would do the same, he added.
Jett, the co-defendant, had no powerful connections. He is expected to serve out his original sentence.
In a statement released Friday, the Nuñez family said: “We continue to grieve over the losses related to our son’s involvement in this tragic incident and pray daily for God’s healing grace. Our son has paid his debt to society and will continue to meet all legal and financial obligations to the victim’s family as agreed. He is committed to continuing the work of healing, self-reflection and spiritual growth. We respectfully request our privacy at this time.”
The Santos family mounted a legal battle to block the commutation, but without success. In 2012, a Sacramento judge called the commutation “repugnant” but legal. In 2015, an appeals court wrote that “back-room dealings were apparent,” but ruled that Schwarzenegger had been within his rights.
Kathy Santos said she doesn’t forgive Esteban Nuñez and wishes him ill as he reenters the world.
“I don’t believe he’s reformed,” she said. “I take pleasure from the thought that he will screw up his life again. I don’t think there will be a way out if he messes up again.”
She said she is heartened by ways in which her son’s death, and the controversy that followed, have entered the fabric of popular culture as a byword for injustice. A few months ago, a co-worker referred Santos to crime writer Michael Connelly’s recent novel “The Crossing.”
In it, the hero — former LAPD Det. Harry Bosch — broods about a thinly veiled version of the Nuñez case. A cigar-chomping governor, in his last hours in office, commutes the sentence of the son of a political ally.
“Before running for office the governor had been a movie star specializing in playing larger-than-life heroes — men willing to sacrifice everything to do the right thing,” Connelly wrote. “He was now back in Hollywood, trying to be a movie star once again. But Bosch was resolved that he would never watch another one of his films — even on free TV.”
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said that Nuñez, who is being held at Mule Creek State Prison, will be released on parole sometime within the next week. The department’s policy is not to reveal the specific time and date of a release.
Jill DiCarlo, the San Diego prosecutor who handled the Nuñez case, said his release was “just another horrible blow” to the Santos family. “You can’t fathom what they’re going through,” she said. “It’s like they keep getting kicked in the gut.”
She said the case was an example of raw political power trumping the justice system. “People always say, ‘It’s who you know,’ and I always say, ‘No, it’s not.’ But I guess in this case, it is.”
Sometime after the much-publicized commutation, DiCarlo said, she found herself in a Southern California movie theater when a trailer for a Schwarzenegger film came on. “Several people in the theater booed,” she said, and she joined in.
She can’t be sure if they were booing him for the Nuñez commutation, she said, but “I want to believe that’s what it was.”
Schwarzenegger did not return a call for comment left at his office.
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