Schwarzenegger's Executive Order Cutting Esteban Nunez Prison Sentence Legal, Judge Rules

Last-minute decision by outgoing governor called "repugnant"

Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's executive order reducing the prison term of the son of a high-powered politician was "repugnant," a Sacramento judge said last week -- but legal.

That executive order, which cut in half the prison term for the son of former Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, is still making waves, more than a year-and-a-half after it was issued.

Friday, Superior Court Judge Lloyd Connelly denounced the former governor's dead-of-night order, but ruled that it was legal.   Governors have issued commutations before, of course, but the Nunez order has sparked tremendous controversy.

Esteban Nunez pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in connection with the 2008 death of Luis Dos Santos, a college student who was stabbed to death during a fight on the outskirts of the San Diego State campus.   He was given a 16-year sentence.

Schwarzenegger intervened, cutting the sentence in half.  That sparked outrage from the victim's family, who accused the governor of doing a political favor for Fabian Nunez.

Nunez sees it differently.  He told me last year the commutation order was justified.

"Absolutely. 100 percent."  Nunez said.  "The fact that my son comes from a quote unquote 'privileged family'...he was treated much harsher than anyone else in that case."

Nunez acknowledged that the case would never have reached the governor's desk if not for their friendship, but argued that the ruling was fair.

The victim's family, and San Diego prosecutors think otherwise.  

If the judge had thrown out the order, it would have opened the door, potentially, for other commutation and clemency orders to be tossed out.  Constitutionally, he ruled, Schwarzenegger was within his legal rights.

But the family plans an appeal.  They believe their case is a reminder that just because a governor can make this kind of order, doesn't mean he should.

Author Kevin Riggs, an Emmy-winning former TV reporter in Sacramento, is Senior Vice President at Randle Communications.

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