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Sunday, May 3, 2009 | When Esteban Nuñez, the 19-year-old son of former California Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez, was arrested last year on murder charges, several of his father’s influential friends signed letters of support for the young man.
“I have had the opportunity to watch him (Esteban) grow and develop into a decent and responsible young man,” wrote Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who was Fabian Nuñez’s best man. California Assemblyman Kevin De León, wrote: “I have known Esteban for his entire life. I have known him to be considerate, gentle and well mannered.”
The upwelling of support, which included more than 70 letters from prominent Californians including a Pomona City Council member, labor union reps, a restaurateur and a high-flying political consultant, may well have helped Esteban Nuñez get his bail reduced in half from $2 million to $1 million last year.
Nuñez is one of four young men charged with beating and stabbing three victims, one of whom died of his injuries, in a street brawl in San Diego last October. He was released from jail in December, along with one of his co-defendants. All four defendants had their bail decreased to $1 million, but the two other defendants remain incarcerated.
A look into the court file for the case sheds some light on the behind-the-scenes effort to corral support for Nuñez in the form of the letters, which testify not just to the young man’s good character but also to the character and integrity of his parents.
The letters from the Nuñez case provide an extreme example of a tactic that defense attorneys said can help tip the balance in favor of a defendant appearing before a judge on a bail review hearing. The mechanics of bail in California are partially defined by legislation, but with the ultimate decision resting with a judge, defense lawyers said letter-writing campaigns can prove invaluable in making a defendant’s case.
“Letter writing assures the judge that the person asking for bail is a good bet to return to court, because he’s part of a larger structure of people who are not likely to help him, or allow him, to flee,” said Paul Pfingst, a former San Diego district attorney who is now a defense lawyer and is representing one of Nuñez’s co-defendants.
The bulk of the Nuñez letters focus on Esteban Nuñez’s character and the contention that, whatever may have happened on the night of Oct. 4, 2008, Nuñez has always come across to the letter writers as a nice, respectful young man. Several of the letters also cut right to the issue of bail, such as the one from De León, which reads:
“His bail was recently set at $2 million which I hope you will reduce given that Esteban is neither a risk to public safety nor a flight risk. I believe the bail should be set at a much lower amount and he should be released into the custody of his parents while awaiting trial.”
Several of the letters attest to the integrity and character of Nuñez’s parents, Fabian and Maria.
“Both Fabian and Maria have spent many years of their lives in the service of the public, making dramatic improvements to both our environment and the health care system,” wrote Thomas Polansky, director of facilities management at Abode Communities, a Los Angeles nonprofit development company.
“[Maria Nuñez] and her husband are hard-working, responsible individuals, who will do everything in their power to ensure that their son meets all court dates and abides by the law,” wrote Jane Hirsch, who sits on the board of directors of Californians for Patient Care, a statewide nonprofit healthcare advocacy organization.
Pfingst said lawyers will often actually draft these letters themselves, after a conversation or interview with the friend or acquaintance of the defendant. The lawyer will conduct an interview, taking copious notes, and will then draft a letter which he or she sends to the “author” for approval, he said.
Nuñez’s lawyer, Bradley Patton, could not be reached for comment.
Bail is designed as collateral against a defendant’s promise that they will appear in court. In considering how much bail to set, a judge has two factors to consider: whether the defendant is a flight risk or poses a risk to the general public if released.
Collecting letters from friends and family of the defendant is only useful as a tactic for presenting a case on the first of those factors, Pfingst said. When a defendant is young, and doesn’t have a long history that a judge can draw on to make a decision, testimony from letter-writers stating that the defendant is responsible and is likely to show up in court can be highly effective, he said.
But Pfingst said a good attorney will assess each defendant on a case-by-case basis before considering collecting letters testifying to their client’s good character. If a client has a history of missing court dates or otherwise abusing the legal system, there’s not much point trying to convince the judge that history is not going to repeat itself, he said. And if a prosecutor can show that a defendant poses a risk to the public, letter writing is a waste of time, he said.
“This is an extreme example, but if you’ve got some guy who’s high on meth and is addicted and is going around killing people because he keeps seeing demons come out of his television, he’s not going to get bail,” Pfingst said.
Gary Gibson, a defense attorney and adjunct professor at California Western School of Law, said a good defense attorney faced with a high bail amount and a client who does not have a long criminal history, should immediately start thinking about collecting testimony from friends and family of the defendant in the form of letters.
In doing so, a lawyer wants to seek out people who can attest to the good character of the defendant and whose opinion is likely to convince a judge that, if the defendant was involved in the crime at all, it was a one-off incident that’s not going to be repeated if the defendant’s allowed to remain free.
“The first thing you want to do in any case, to get the bail reduced, is to try to show the judge that the act in question was aberrational and out of the mainstream of the defendant’s character,” Gibson said.
In Nuñez’s case, however, the letters often go even further than that.
“We are devastated by the vicious news accounts that have surfaced in San Diego and elsewhere that cast aspersions on Esteban as well as his parents. We believe them to be false and terribly misleading — written to put them all in the worst possible light,” reads a letter to Nuñez’s attorney from Gale Kaufman, a prominent Sacramento political consultant, and her husband Steve Murakami. “[T]his is tremendously unfair,” the letter continues.
Pfingst said he normally avoids including letters that weigh in on the facts of a case. It’s more effective for a letter writer to stick to testimony about a defendant’s character than to start weighing in on the facts of the case, he said.
Jean Rosenbluth, a professor of law at the University of Southern California, said it’s not just well-connected defendants who can benefit from a campaign of letter writing. Anyone who can reach out to respected members of a community — like teachers, lawyers, community activists or politicians — to write a letter for them can benefit from the tactic, she said.
“I’m aware of cases where defendants weren’t at all rich or powerful and they still had people writing letters on their behalf,” Rosenbluth said.