Now that we have had some time to reflect further on outgoing governor Arnold Schwarznegger’s reduced sentence for Estaban Nunez, the son of his business ally, former Assembly Speaker, Fabian Nunez, the whole thing looks far worse, not better.
On Sunday, the LA Times’ Jack Nolan examined the issue in a story about the 29 inmates in the last year alone who had served lengthy prison sentences, who were deemed appropriately punished and rehabilitated by the notoriously hard core California parole board that they were granted parole.
However, none of those 29 inmates were actually released because Arnold spiked their parole, countermanding the decision by the board (a group that has never been known for its warm and fuzzy liberalism).
Here’s a clip:
They, like former state Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez’s son Esteban, participated in crimes that left a victim dead but did not deliver the fatal blows.
And like the younger Nuñez, 11 of those inmates had no previous criminal record, according to orders from the governor’s office in 2009, the most recent year for which records are publicly available.
Among the reasons Schwarzenegger frequently gave for reversing the parole board — a panel appointed by his office and dominated by former police and corrections officers — was that the victim had been killed over something “trivial.”
In addition, the offender had demonstrated “callous disregard for human suffering,” often by fleeing the scene and leaving the victim to die, as Nuñez did after he and his friends drunkenly attacked a group of strangers on a San Diego street in 2008 after being denied entrance to a fraternity party.
Schwarzenegger laid out circumstances strikingly similar to those of the Nuñez case in a June 2009 order overturning the parole board’s decision to free Sieu Ngo, who had served 16 years for his role in a gang assault at Fullerton High School.
Like Nuñez , Ngo was 19 at the time of his crime. It was September 1992 when he and four friends chased and beat a rival gang member, Angel Gonzalez. During the attack, one of Ngo’s accomplices pulled a gun and shot Gonzalez once in the back, killing him. And like Nuñez, Ngo then hopped in a car with the others and hit the road.
In the Nuñez case, the politician’s son had stabbed one victim in the stomach while a friend fatally stabbed another in the heart. Then they drove to Sacramento and threw their knives in a river. Ngo’s group drove to Washington state, where they were arrested a month and a half later, according to Schwarzenegger’s order.
Schwarzenegger acknowledged that Ngo, who is serving 16 years to life, had maintained “supportive relationships with family and friends” during his time in prison and had a job offer waiting for him if he got out. But the former governor argued that Ngo still failed to take full responsibility for his actions, a trait he had demonstrated after the attack by fleeing to another state, Schwarzenegger wrote.
Eighteen months after ordering Ngo to stay in prison, Schwarzenegger cut Nuñez’s sentence by more than half, from 16 years to seven. Nuñez had served six months at the time and would not have been eligible for parole until roughly 2023….
(Read the rest here.)
The people in Dolan’s story suggest a stark inconsistency in Schwarzenneger’s policy.
Yet in all the cases he mentioned someone was murdered.
But what about the California kids tried as adults and given lengthy sentences for crimes in which no one died, no one was seriously hurt, and in which they were not the prime participant in the first place? What about those cases?
Why were those young inmates not as deserving as Estaban Nunez?
TAKE, FOR EXAMPLE, THE CASE OF MICHAEL DUC TA
In 2000, Michael Duc Ta was a bright, 16-year-old who tested in the highly gifted range but was also a boy with problems, mostly due to a lousy home life. According to court records, Ta often clashed with his dad, a Vietnamese immigrant who reportedly smacked Ta’s mom around on a regular basis, and then smacked his son whenever Ta tried to intervene. Things got bad enough that Ta ran away several times, and once tried suicide. He also got himself expelled from school on two separate occasions for bouts of acting out—the first time, from elementary school for setting off a stink bomb. The second expulsion, years later, was for fighting, and caused Ta to be transferred to Valle Lindo, a continuation high school in El Monte that was loaded with gang members. As with most continuation schools in LA County, Valle Lindo’s students were an edgy group that tended to Balkanize along racial lines: Latino’s hung with Latino’s, Anglos with Anglos and so on. Ta hung out mostly with other Asian students, many of whom happened to be gang affiliated.
On the afternoon May 25 2000, Ta and a friend, who claimed membership to the Asian Boyz gang, drove to a local elementary school to pick up the friend’s little brother. While waiting for the younger boy, they spotted a car containing two members of another gang, the Black Panthers. Words were exchanged, then eventually both cars drove away. After the brother had been dropped off, Ta’s friend invited a third guy to ride with them, a [tk]year old whom Ta had never met, who also was one of the Asian Boyz. The trio cruised for a while, until they again encountered the Black Panther car.
This time things escalated. Suddenly, guy three, who was sitting in the backseat of Ta’s car, pulled a gun from under his sweatshirt. After waving it about, he tossed it to Ta telling him to shoot. According to Ta’s subsequent statements to the police, he had no inkling guy three was packing. Whatever the truth of his foreknowledge, a freaked out Ta picked up the.45 automatic and gaped at it for several long seconds. “Give it to me,” said kid two in the passenger seat and snatched the weapon. Kid two then turned fired five rounds at the Panther car.
Thankfully, he was a bad shot. No one was hurt or even hit. The noise woke Ta out of his stupor. He slammed into reverse and drove away in a blind panic, making it as far as a nearby Shakey’s Pizza where he stopped the car, too scared to drive further. At that point, kid two took the wheel. The El Monte police stopped the car a few blocks later.
Since Ta was sixteen at the time of the incident, and had no prior convictions, in past decades he would have been tried within the juvenile system. But, the shooting occurred just 79 days after Proposition 21 was voted into law and, under its new provisions, Ta was bounced to adult criminal court.
Based on what we know now, Ta was not a gang member, and never was. He had no gang tattoos, no gang nickname, no prior criminal charges or convictions. There was no record of him being ever being stopped by the police for gang activity (or any other activity), nor did he show up anywhere in CAL GANG, LA County’s gang database. In fact, his one and only previous contact with law enforcement had been at age 14 when his jerk of a father held a gun to his head threatened to pull the trigger. Ta managed to escape and called the cops.
Yet Deputy Dist. Atty. May Chung, then a member of the LA’s hard core gang prosecutor team, told the jury that if Ta was in the car with gang members, he had to be an active member himself. Thus, a whole list of sentencing “enhancements” should apply. The jury bought it.
Thus, on January 5, 2001, although he had no prior convictions, and although no one was hurt in the incident for which he was tried, Michael Duc Ta was given a sentence of 35 to life—meaning he would first be eligible for parole when he was 51 years old.
However, unlike most kids in Ta’s position, he had one piece of good luck. He was one of twelve juveniles being tried as adults featured in award-winning filmmaker Leslie Neale’s documentary, Juvies. Ta stood out in particular because of his obvious intelligence and his shy but winning personality. The teenager also had talent as a writer.
His appearance in the film led Neale and a number of other advocates, including actor Mark Wahlberg and star defense attorney, Michael Garagoes, to spend several years pulling out every legal stop to get Michael Duc Ta’s sentence lowered to what he would have gotten had there been no gang allegation.
They succeeded in part when, in 2005, Judge George Horan, reduced Ta’s sentence to 11 years to life.
Ta has now served those 11 years. But because of the “L” after his sentence, this does not mean he will be released. The state has the option of keeping him indefinitely. His latest parole hearing in October of 2010 was denied. He can try again in 2012.
Hoping to find some way to gain freedom for Ta, who is now in his 20′s, Neale and others petitioned Arnold Schwarzenegger to commute the “life” part of Michael Duc Ta’s so that he could be released—now that he has served his time and has a stellar record during his years in prison.
Schwarzenegger ignored the petition.
Nevertheless, Duc Ta is a thousand times luckier than most due to his appearance in the film, which gathered him his high profile friends.
The majority of former juvenile inmates whose sentences Schwarzenegger might have commuted are more like Jesse Alejo.
Jesse Alejo was 17-years-old when he was arrested for the incident that led to a sentence of 30-to life, even though—as with Ta—no one died, and Alejo was not the shooter.
TO BE CONTINUED