Ties to power win Nuñez’s son special treatment

Hector Tobar, Times
December 23, 2008

I have no idea if Esteban Nuñez is a “gang member,” a term that’s used and misused so often that I prefer to give it a home inside quotation marks.

San Diego police tagged 19-year-old Nuñez with the “gang” label, and charged him in connection with the fatal stabbing of another young man, which certainly sounds like something a “gang member” would be charged with. On the other hand, the police also said he was a “business student,” which is not a label often applied to a “gang member.”

I can’t say for certain if Nuñez is or is not a “gang member.” But if he is, he strikes me as the most politically connected “gang member” in the history of “gang members.”

Earlier this month, young Master Nuñez, whose father, Fabian, happens to be a former speaker of the state Assembly, was the beneficiary of the kind of overflow of official love politicos usually reserve for big-time contributors — or for each other.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, trade union jefa Maria Elena Durazo, Assembly Republican leader Mike Villines, Assemblyman Kevin DeLeon (D-Los Angeles) and others wrote letters to the judge hearing his case.

They attested to Nuñez’s good character and tried to persuade a San Diego County Superior Court judge to reduce his $2-million bail.

Writing on city letterhead, the mayor of America’s second largest city said that he had known the accused “for over ten years.” He continued: “In my heart, I know Esteban Nuñez as a young man of good and upright character.”

Villines, who is from Clovis, didn’t claim to know Esteban Nuñez well but wrote that “I have no doubt that Mr. Nunez, being one of the top lawmakers in California, will be very responsible in making sure that his son attends all scheduled court dates.”

Judge David Szumowski received the letters and weighed them on the scales of justice alongside the facts against Nuñez. Police had reported a tattoo on his upper arm, which was said to be possible evidence of a “gang” affiliation. More importantly, there were witnesses who said he carried a knife and that they heard him and his three co-defendants make threatening statements at a San Diego party. And finally, there was the gravity of the crime to consider: Luis Dos Santos, 22, died of a stab wound to the heart.

The judge reduced Nuñez’s bail by half, to $1 million. He posted bail and is now free pending a trial on the charges.

Had his father and friends not interceded, Nuñez likely would have spent more than a year in County Jail waiting for his trial to begin.

There’s a deep, historical irony to the fact that Villaraigosa and former Assemblyman Nuñez joined with a large number of their allies to help the younger Nuñez win at least temporary freedom.

Both politicos are natives of Southern California barrios. Both men began their careers advocating for the poor, though both have had their “man of the people” credentials tarnished of late.

Once, they were idealists, and then they became politicians. For politicians, it’s smart to ignore that large and needy constituency known as “criminal defendants.”

Now, as a friend and a father, they have been forced to confront the reality of one young man whose fate will be decided in a courtroom. Thanks to the good graces of the voters, they have the power to help him. Unfortunately, there are thousands more who won’t get such help.

People attach the “gang” label, after all, not just to the sociopathic inmate with a proven “gang affiliation” but to the suburban poser who’s simply listened to too much hip-hop. “Gangster” is a slur tossed at young men whose only “crime” is a bad haircut or an ill-advised fashion statement. There are pizza-delivery guys and paralegals out there who get mistaken for “gang members” every day.

The vast majority of arrestees who are accused of acting like “gang members” don’t get powerful letters of recommendation. They get the treatment afforded to the people I saw last week at the criminal courthouse just across Spring Street from the mayor’s office at City Hall.

“I don’t know what’s happening,” one 21-year-old Latino man told me moments after he’d been arraigned on a drug-sale charge. To me, he looked like a confused, and very frightened, college student but definitely not like a “gang member.”

“I haven’t talked to my lawyer yet,” he told me. Actually, I had just watched him talk to a public defender — but because the attorneys at the Los Angeles County public defender’s office don’t get to spend much time with their clients, especially in the early phases of a prosecution, defendants often mistake them for court clerks.

“It’s controlled chaos here,” said Marco A. Sanez, who supervises felony trials for the public defender. “But it works.”

The public defender’s office turns away 20,000 clients every year because it can’t afford to represent them, forcing the county to contract with private attorneys.

A public attorney handling a case like Esteban’s can easily have two dozen others on his or her plate. Their offices are overcrowded and they could really use new laptops too.

Unfortunately, there’s never a long line of politicos speaking out on behalf of the public defender at the budget hearings of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

I know this because ages ago I used to cover those hearings and the public defender was always at the back of the line, along with the registrar-recorder, the county library people and other services that were treated like budgetary luxuries.

“We are the stepchild of the county departments,” is how Bob Kalunian, the No. 2 guy at the public defender’s office, put it to me.

“It’s difficult for a political official to push funding for indigent criminal defendants to the electorate.”

It is not, however, only the indigent who need such services. A lot of middle-class Angelenos also rely on the public defender.

After all, a good defense attorney in a case like Nuñez’s can cost between $10,000 and $100,000.

Assemblyman DeLeon represents a fair chunk of the Eastside. When I pointed out to him that the vast majority of his constituents who found themselves in a situation like Nuñez’s would languish in jail or resort to the public defender because they would not have money or connections, he grew angry .

“I’ve known Esteban since he was a baby,” he said. “I would have written that letter if I were a jornalero [a laborer] or a trade union organizer, or an elected official. I did it because I knew him. Period. . . . There is no quid pro quo.”

Fair enough.

But wouldn’t it be great if the members of the Assembly and the mayor and the rest of our political class started falling over themselves to advocate for the public defender’s office, to get it more lawyers and maybe even an extra laptop or two?

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