California’s Criminal Cronyism: Why The Governator Reduced A Violent Felon’s Sentence

Lloyd Billingsley Policy Fellow, Independent Institute
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Arnold Schwarzenegger, California’s last Republican governor, claimed his Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 would set an example for the world. That outcome remains uncertain, but the former governor may have set a new standard in cronyism by reducing the prison sentence of a violent criminal.

In early April, the California Department of Corrections released Esteban Núñez, 27, involved in the fatal stabbing of college student Luis Santos in 2008 and sentenced to 16 years in prison after pleading guilty to manslaughter. That term was much shorter than the life sentence Núñez would have faced if convicted of murder.

Even so, his father Fabian Núñez, a left-wing Democrat and California’s former Assembly Speaker, thought the 16-year sentence excessive and politically motivated. When a judge refused to reduce the term, Núñez turned to Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, his friend and close ally on the climate change legislation.

The governor duly reduced the sentence of Esteban Núñez to a paltry seven years. According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, Gov. Schwarzenegger signed the executive order in December 2010 but didn’t announce the action until January 2, 2011, with hours left in his term. The former action hero also failed to notify the family of the victim Luis Santos.

“We are totally outraged,” Fred Santos, the victim’s father, told reporters. “For the governor to wait until the last day in hopes it would fly under the radar is an absolute injustice.” Many Republicans and Democrats felt likewise, but the system offered no recourse.

Judge Lloyd Connelly called the governor’s action “distasteful and repugnant” but in September 2012, Connelly ruled that the state’s Victims’ Bill of Rights does not extend to clemency proceedings. In June 2015, the 3rd District Court of Appeal upheld Connelly’s decision, and that quashed the Santos family’s legal battle.

Arnold Schwarzenegger returned to the movie business and in 2012 released Total Recall: My Unbelievably True Life Story. In this memoir, he tried his hand as a critic, reviewing his own term as governor. “We made a hell of a lot of progress, and we made a lot of history,” he wrote.

The achievements included education reform, budget reform, welfare reform and “parole reforms.” The sentence reduction and early parole for Esteban Núñez, however, got no ink at all in Total Recall. In movie terms, it was all left on the cutting room floor.

In April, when the Department of Corrections announced the release of Esteban Núñez from his reduced sentence, the former governor issued no statement. And as the Los Angeles Times noted, “Schwarzenegger did not return a call for comment left at his office.”

The Núñez family issued a statement saying Esteban has paid his debt to society and is “committed to continuing the work of healing, self-reflection and spiritual growth.” Meanwhile, Luis Santos is dead and Nuñez’s co-defendant Ryan Jett, without powerful friends, remains in prison to serve out his full sentence of 16 years.

As the case shows, cronyism is not the exclusive property of any political party or ideology. And in matters of criminal justice, cronyism is particularly loathsome.

Lloyd Billingsley is a Policy Fellow and Communications Counsel at the Independent Institute. He is author of Hollywood Party: Stalinist Adventures in the American Movie Industry, and Bill of Writes: Dispatches from the Political Correctness Battlefield.