Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's reduction of the voluntary manslaughter sentence of his pal Fabian Núñez's son was "distasteful," "repugnant" and an abuse of his discretion but it wasn't illegal, according to a judge who let it stand Friday.
In turning back an effort by a slain man's family to throw out the commutation and reimpose Esteban Núñez's full 16-year prison term, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Lloyd G. Connelly said in a ruling from the bench that Schwarzengger was empowered by his executive authority to do what he did.
But the judge figuratively held his nose in approving the Republican governor's decision in his final hours in office on Jan. 2, 2011, to reduce the sentence of the former Democratic Assembly speaker's son to seven years.
"Based on the evidentiary records before this court, involving this case, there was an abuse of discretion," Connelly said. "It was a distasteful commutation. It was repugnant to the bulk of the citizenry of this state. It's inconsistent with what I understand to be the normal sentences that are imposed for these kind of (deaths). It is outside the normal realm, the normal circle of fundamental justice."
But the judge declared that Schwarzenegger was well within his authority to cut the prisoner's sentence.
Connelly said a governor's commutation power is something the people consider when they cast their vote.
"Commutation is a discretionary right the people have in their wisdom decided to give to the governor such that he can make decisions outside of the normal criminal justice system," the judge said.
Afterward, Kathy and Fred Santos, the parents of Luis Santos, the 22-year-old man stabbed to death Oct. 4, 2008, in San Diego, harshly criticized the state attorney general's office for defending "corruption."
They vowed to press forward with their effort to have the commutation vacated on Núñez's 23-year-old son, who is now in the third year of his term at Mule Creek State Prison in Ione.
"They defended a backroom deal," Kathy Santos told reporters outside the courtroom. "They got away with it for today. Where's the justice for our son? He was murdered. Two conniving politicians got away with it."
Attorney general spokeswoman Lynda Gledhill declined to comment on the ruling.
The plaintiffs' lawyers had argued that Schwarzenegger violated state law by not notifying the families of the victims before commuting the sentence. Connelly said such notifications apply only to pardons, not commutations, and that the two processes are "as different as a horse and an elephant."
The judge, in granting the attorney general's motion for a summary judgment, also said from the bench that Marsy's Law, a victims' rights measure passed by voters, was not written to apply to commutations. The attorneys for the Santos parents disagreed.