05.11.11

Arnold Pardoned My Son’s Attacker

San Diego’s D.A. filed suit tonight to void Schwarzenegger’s commutation of the murder sentence of a political ally’s kid. Bruce Henderson remembers the night his son was almost killed.

Arnold Schwarzenegger's latest scandal— a bombshell revelation about a love child with a household employee—has nearly overshadowed the case that dogged his administration's final days. Last week, San Diego’s D.A. filed suit to void the Governator’s commutation of the murder sentence of a political ally’s kid. Bruce Henderson remembers the night his son was almost killed.

San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis last week filed a civil lawsuit seeking to nullify ex-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's controversial commutation of the prison sentence of the son of a political ally, former state assembly speaker Fabian Nunez.

Flanked by victims and their families, Dumanis announced the unprecedented action at a press conference minutes after it had been filed in superior court. The lawsuit to reinstate the 16-year sentence of Esteban Nunez for his role in the 2008 assault that resulted in the death of Luis Santos and serious injuries to several other college students is believed to be the first in the nation filed by a D.A. to overturn a governor's commutation.

As the father of one of the victims, I attended the press conference and reflected on the events that led us here.

The middle-of-the-night phone call every parent fears most awakened me at home in Menlo Park, California, shortly after 3 a.m. on October 4, 2008. My son, Evan, a junior at San Diego State University, was going into emergency surgery for internal bleeding from knife wounds in his back and stomach.

On the first flight to San Diego, I rushed into Scripps Mercy Hospital at 8:30 a.m. to find that my son would live. The knife blade had narrowly missed vital organs. Evan, pale and groggy, was being interviewed by a detective when I entered the room. I learned that his friend, Luis Santos, an outgoing 22 year old, had been stabbed in the chest and was pronounced dead at the scene.

News of Schwarzennegger's clemency for the man who tried to kill my son took me back again to that first agonizing day at the hospital.

The previous night had started with Evan, Luis and friends doing what college students have long done on Friday nights: partying and drinking. In the wee hours, my son and his roommates, Keith Robertson and Jason Fiori, and their friends Brandon Scheerer and Luis, were chatting in front of Cox Arena on the San Diego State campus. When they split up, Luis and Brandon were accosted by four men a few blocks away.

The aggressors had arrived from Sacramento the day before. Upset at being barred entry to a fraternity party, they went to the apartment of one of their cousins, where they downed spiced rum and beers. "Faggot frat guys. Let's go burn down their house." They talked of beating up people, even killing someone. They had brought along knives.

Luis called his friends and said he and Brandon were about to get jumped. Evan, Keith, and Jason ran that way, and came upon a fleeing Luis. Four figures came from the opposite direction. As the two groups passed, Luis was dropped by a blow to the chest.

When Evan went to Luis' aid he was pushed from behind. Not knowing he had been stabbed in the back, he spun around, and took a blow to the stomach.

When it was over, Keith had been stabbed in the shoulder, and Brandon had a fractured eye socket and orbital wall. Finally realizing he had been stabbed, Evan sat on the curb, took out his cellphone and dialed 911.

Luis, whose heart was severed by the blade, had collapsed under a large shrub.

Hours after returning to Sacramento later that day, the assailants learned on the Internet that someone had died. Esteban Nunez, 19, and Ryan Jett, 22, went to the Sacramento River, where they doused a pile of bloody clothing with gasoline and set it on fire, then threw their knives into the river. If necessary, Nunez said he would claim self-defense and see if his father could get him off. A few days later, Nunez sent a text message to one of the assailants: Gangster rap made us do it lol.

Esteban Nunez's father is Fabian Nunez, 45, the longest-serving speaker of the State Assembly in California's era of term limits. When he became speaker in 2004, he cultivated an alliance with the new governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Together, they led the campaign to pass a 2006 state law to reduce California's greenhouse gas emissions.

On December 2, 2008, Nunez and Jett, along with Rafael Garcia, a judge's son, and Leshanor Thomas, both 19, were arrested on homicide and assault charges.

Assigned to prosecute was San Diego Deputy District Attorney Jill DiCarlo, who came to believe the evidence showed that Jett had killed Luis, and Nunez had knifed Evan.

In a press conference on the courthouse steps, Fabian Nunez proclaimed his son's innocence by reason of self-defense. The image of the politico claiming his son had knifed my son in the back in “self defense” infuriated me.

Then two of the assailants accepted plea deals in exchange for testifying against the other defendants, leaving only the two stabbers—Jett and Nunez—to face a jury.

On May 5, 2010, days before the trial was to begin, Jett and Nunez pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter, using a knife in the killing, two counts of assault with a deadly weapon, and inflicting great bodily injury with a knife. Both admitted responsibility for the killing of Luis, and Nunez admitted to stabbing Evan.

Jett and Nunez took the deal in exchange for lesser sentences—had they been convicted of murder, they would have faced prison terms of 25 years to life.

On June 25, 2010, they were each sentenced to 16 years.

On January 2, 2011, in one of his last acts as governor, Schwarzenegger commuted Nunez's term to seven years, describing it as "more appropriate" given Nunez's "limited role in the killing." The reduced sentence contrasted with Schwarzenegger's previous denials of clemency in similar crimes—including 29 felons who left a victim dead but none of whom had delivered the fatal blow. Among the governor's reasons for not giving clemency: the killings had been over something "extremely trivial," and the offenders had shown "exceptionally callous disregard for human suffering" by leaving their victim to suffer and die.

News of Schwarzennegger's clemency for the man who tried to kill my son took me back again to that first agonizing day at the hospital. When I checked into a hotel that night, I turned on the TV as the local news was covering the story, and watched as paramedics pushed a gurney into an ambulance. A blanket covered an unidentified victim. Then, I recognized my son's scuffed sneakers sticking out from the blanket. Realizing how very close we had come to losing him, I started shaking.

Esteban Nunez is incarcerated at Mule Creek State Prison, where he was transferred to a "sensitive-needs" unit after the Nunez family sent to the warden's assistant a new Kindle, which was later returned. At this point, Nunez could be released from prison as early as 2015. His father, Fabian Nunez, is eyeing a run for California state treasurer.

Recently leaving an event, Schwarzenegger was asked by a reporter for a comment on the Nunez commutation. The ex-governor dismissed it as a “boring question,” and strode away from the TV camera. As he did, Schwarzenegger made a loud snoring sound.