Friday, January 21, 2011

Victim's Family Sues the (former) Governator

Governor Schwarzenegger plumbed new lows in the fading hours of his time in office by commuting the prison sentence (for murder) of Esteban Nunez, the son of Democrat Fabian Nunez, the former Speaker of the Assembly and Schwarzenegger's "partner" in flailing about during the state's fiscal crisis. Now the victim's family (remember them?) has struck back, suing Ah-nuld and various state agencies for violating their constitutional rights in commuting the sentence of one of their son's killers:

A Concord family is fighting back against a reduced punishment for a man involved in the killing of their son, filing a lawsuit Thursday against the state and Arnold Schwarzenegger that argues the former governor illegally commuted the sentence of one of the attackers.

During his last hours in office, Schwarzenegger commuted the sentence of Esteban Núñez, the son of former Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez. Esteban Núñez pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and other charges in the fatal stabbing of Luis Santos. Schwarzenegger reduced Esteban Núñez's sentence from 16 years in prison to seven years.

The Santos family filed the suit against Schwarzenegger and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in Sacramento County Superior Court, alleging that Schwarzenegger violated the state Constitution. The family wants Núñez's original sentence reinstated.

Kathy Santos, the mother of the murder victim, told reporters at a news conference that her family is "not well connected, politically powerful or wealthy, but we will not stop fighting for our legal rights and we will not stop fighting for our son Luis."

Fred Santos, the young man's father, said that after the sentencing in 2010 his family had hoped the new year would allow them to begin to move past the crime. "But boy, were we ever wrong about that," he said, calling the commutation a political favor.

"By commuting the sentence of one of our son's killers, Arnold Schwarzenegger committed a gross injustice," Santos said.

When I first heard about this, I could understand the anger motivating this lawsuit, but also wondered how it could possibly succeed, given the harsh realities of legal immunity governors usually enjoy in carrying out their duties. But, wouldn't you know it, California's constitution has a provision that may offer the Santos a colorable claim.

Specifically, the Santos family is claiming Schwarzenegger violated provisions of Proposition 9, also known as Marsy's Law, passed by voters in 2008, that amended the Constitution to provide greater rights for victims of crime. They allege Schwarzenegger failed to notify, involve and consider the victims of the crime, which is mandated under Prop. 9, prior to commuting Núñez's sentence.

The suit also cites provisions in the proposition - now part of the state Constitution - that call for people convicted of crimes to suffer the sentence imposed on them by courts.

Luis Santos' parents, who live in Concord, have said they were never notified that Núñez's sentence was commuted - and learned about the former governor's move through news reporters. Schwarzenegger later sent a letter apologizing to the Santoses for not informing them of his decision.

All of this is possible thanks to victim-friendly proposition that voters passed a couple years ago. For all of the talk about California's liberal voters, the state remains a law and order jurisdiction whose citizens have little patience for the criminal element and those on the progressive left who seem inordinately fond of them. The Nunez commutation is a prime example, but there have been many like it over the years with Polly Klaas' murder by a parolee being the most notorious.

The state is, frankly, filled with people with serious psychological and substance abuse problems, or who are simply criminally minded. Voters have spoken consistently, and practically with one voice, about the need to keep these guys locked up, whether through 3-strikes laws, or victim's rights propositions. Yet, the impetus to return convicts to the streets is unending, whether from the parole boards to commutation-crazed governors to ACLU types trying to empty the prisons through lawsuits about "overcrowding" (that's the plan, guys). No doubt, budget cutting progressives in the Brown Administration are giving the prison budget the long eye. There is, as we speak, a de facto moratorium in place against the death penalty despite their not being any public demand for one. And so on.

Crime and punishment are recurring themes in California politics, almost always because the sophisticates working within the criminal justice system seem perpetually ready to aggrandize the rights of criminals over those of the victims, and society at large. Despite the effectiveness, and elegant simplicity, of the 3-strikes law, it has been under relentless assault from the legal left since it was first passed. Secret commutations for political insiders are of a piece with that. Good for the Santos for at least taking a stand.

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