New Bill Would Require Notice Before Sentence Commutation

Ex-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger Reduced Sentence Of Esteban Nunez Before Leaving Office

Legislation that would require timely notification of crime victims and district attorneys when an application is made to shorten a prison sentence was hailed Thursday by San Diego County's top prosecutor and the parents of a murder victim.

Assembly Bill 648 was authored in response to former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's commutation -- on his last day in office -- of the sentence for a former Assembly speaker's son.

Esteban Nunez pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and assault with a deadly weapon in connection with a drunken knife-fight near San Diego State University that took the life of 22-year-old Luis Santos on Oct. 4. 2008.

The son of former Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez had his sentence commuted by Schwarzenegger from 16 to seven years in prison while the case was on appeal.

Neither prosecutors nor the victim's parents were notified of Schwarzenegger's decision. In fact, Fred and Kathy Santos heard the news when a reporter left a voice mail on their phone.

"The governor's decision to commute that sentence, and the way it was handled, was nothing short of shocking," said San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis. "It re-victimizes Luis's family, his parents, it blindsided the District Attorney's Office, and it undermined the criminal justice system."

The bill, introduced Wednesday, was jointly authored by Asssemblymen Marty Block, D-Lemon Grove, and Nathan Fletcher, R-San Diego.

The bill would require 30 days notice on any commutation or clemency request. It would not curtail the governor's constitutional power; rather it seeks to change the process to make it more transparent and allow victims to have a voice.

Dumanis said her office starting working on proposed changes to the law soon after the Nunez commutation.

"We wanted to make sure that crime victims and prosecutors are notified within a defined time frame when an application for commutation is made in the future," Dumanis said.

"No parent, no family and no victim should ever receive notification of a reduction in a sentence by a reporter," she said. "Last-minute commutations, like this one made recently, without all the facts or input from the affected parents or the prosecution, only fuel the public's mistrust of government, diminish justice and short-circuit due process."

Block said the bill was about "righting a wrong."

"The way Governor Schwarzenegger went about the commutation process in this case is appalling," the assemblyman said. "Acting in the last minute, with no notification or input from families or the District Attorney's Office, is just wrong."

Block said the bill is not a constitutional amendment.

"It doesn't change the governor's prerogative to offer clemency when appropriate," the lawmaker said. "What it does do is require that an applicant for clemency notify the district attorney's office at least 30 days in advance of the governor's acting."

Block said the bill also would require that at the beginning of each legislative session, a governor report to the Legislature on any clemency he or she has extended during the prior term and give a rationale on why it was granted.

Fletcher, citing the courage of the Santos family in supporting the proposed legislation, said authoring the bill was "simply the right thing (to do)."

Kathy Santos said the commutation of Nunez's sentence appears to be the first time in history that a sentence has been commuted following a plea bargain.

"Our son was disrespected from his grave with this secretive decision, which was made to protect and reward the criminal son of a political crony," the victim's mother said.

"The decision to commute the sentence was morally wrong and scandalous. We have lived with enormous heartbreak since the murder of our son, and now we live the nightmare of justice being stolen from us.

"This particular commutation has made a mockery of the justice system and is grossly unfair to our son and to our family," she said. "Luis already had his heart severed, and now for him to be stabbed in the back after death is too sickening to believe."

Fred Santos said the bill is not intended to take away the governor's power to grant clemency in certain cases.

"We just want transparency, we want notification," he said. "Give everybody a chance to comment before a decision is made rather than doing this in a sneaky way like this was done."

Kathy Santos added, "We never expected our son to be jumped and murdered on a college campus while minding his own business, nor did we conceive of justice being overturned by egotistical politicians."

The Santos family has filed a lawsuit in Sacramento, alleging that Schwarzenegger violated their constitutional rights when he commuted Nunez's 16-year sentence.

Dumanis said her office may also file a lawsuit in the matter.

Gov. Jerry Brown's office told 10News that he understands the concerns and will look closely at any legislation regarding commutation.

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