San Diego

Schwarzenegger Ally's Son Freed From Prison After Reduced Sentence for Manslaughter

Esteban Nunez, 27, pleaded guilty in the 2008 stabbing death of college student Luis Santos in San Diego

The son of a once-prominent California lawmaker, convicted in the stabbing death of a Bay Area man, has been released from prison after his sentence was reduced by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. 

Esteban Nunez, 27, pleaded guilty in the 2008 stabbing death of college student Luis Santos in San Diego. Nunez is the son of Fabian Nunez, who was speaker of the state assembly and a political ally of Schwarzenegger. 

Prosecutors said Esteban Nunez and three other men were angry because they were refused entry to a party. They attacked Santos, stabbing him in the chest, near San Diego State University on Oct. 4, 2008. 

In June 2010, Esteban Nunez entered prison to serve a 16-year sentence. Schwarzenegger, however, intervened on his last day in office in 2011, slicing Esteban Nunez's sentence to seven years. Esteban Nunez was released for good behavior after serving less than six. 

"I feel disgusted," said Santos’ mother, Kathy. "Makes me sort of sick that two guys in political power can pull strings to get one of their own murdering children off the hook. I just don't understand that." 

Kathy Santos, and her husband, Frank, of Concord, visited their son's grave Sunday after Esteban Nunez went free. Luis Santos — their "silly," "charming" and "popular" boy — would have been 30 years old this year. 

"While Esteban is probably out celebrating with his family tonight, this is where we come to be with our family," said Kathy Santos, who brings flowers and balloons and sometimes blows bubbles at her son’s grave. 

Kathy and Fred Santos believe the friendship between two ex-politicians allowed their son's convicted killer to go free after serving less than half his original sentence. At the time, Schwarzenegger said he acted because he thought the 16-year sentence was excessive, but he also acknowledged he was helping a friend.

"Even though we’ve been expecting it, it's still not easy to take," Fred Santos said. "They stole justice from our son."

Fred Santos also disagreed with Schwarzenegger's reasoning that Esteban Nunez should be let off easy because Luis Santos' death was his first crime. 

"The question is how many murders do you have to commit before you're eligible to be sentenced harshly?" he said. 

The Santos family sued unsuccessfully to overturn the shortened sentence. In 2012, a Sacramento judge called the commutation "repugnant" but legal. Then, in 2015, an appeals court wrote that "back-room dealings were apparent," but upheld Schwarzenegger's power to reduce the sentence. 

Fred Santos said the commutation reveals Schwarzenegger's "cavalier” attitude toward the case and the lack of importance assigned to the crime. He said it also seems to beg the questions, "Is your dad good friends with the governor? What access do you have to people in high places?" 

The Nunez family released a statement last week, which read, in part: "We continue to grieve over the losses related to our son's involvement in this tragic incident and pray daily for God's healing grace. Our son has paid his debt to society and will continue to meet all legal and financial obligations to the victim's family as agreed." 

Fred Santos, however, said he doesn't forgive Esteban Nunez or his family. 

"I have nothing to say to them," he said. "What can I say? There's nothing I can say that will bring my son back or give him justice."

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said Sunday that Esteban Nunez will live in Sacramento County on parole supervision for three years.

Kathy Santos, however, said she is sure Esteban Nunez's future will be no different than his past. 

"I have full belief that his future actions will not have changed and I really believe that ultimately Esteban will end up in a place just like this because of his own character and his own trouble making," she said. "And I don’t think his dad can get him out of that." 

Of the three other suspects, two pleaded guilty and the third is serving the entire 16-year sentence.

NBC reached out to Schwarzenegger for comment Monday.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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