This is an excerpt from my book, “In 'Lu' of Justice.” It is a cross-genre piece combining true crime and memoir, reminiscent of Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” written in a format similar to Netflix's “Making A Murderer,” HBO's “The Jinx,” and NPR's “Serial.” The story follows the murder of my brother Luis “Lu” Santos.
Written almost as two books in one, the crime chapters are told through the eyes of the homicide team, witnesses and investigators as they uncover the details of the murder while the memoir chapters are told from my point of view, picking up where the crime chapters leave off. Everything I've written in the crime chapters comes from thousands of transcripts, witness testimonies, hours of reporting, and a year and a half of seemingly never-ending research.
The story opens on the campus of San Diego State University where Lu and two of his friends were stabbed while walking home from a party. It follows the murderers as they flee the crime scene, drive back up to their hometown Sacramento, pour gasoline on and burn their bloody clothing, then toss their tainted knives in the river.
The book illuminates a corrupt political system and back-door deal by then Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, carried out during his final hours in office. With one act of nepotism, Schwarzenegger granted clemency to one of Lu's two confessed killers, Esteban Nuñez, who happened to be the son of the governor's right hand man on the political circuit, Fabian Nuñez. Fabian was the California Assembly Speaker at the time of the murder and a National Co-Chairman for Hillary Clinton’s Presidential Campaign that same year.
In addition to admitting guilt to Lu’s death, Esteban was also reportedly responsible for stabbing the two other victims, a step up from the animals he was seen knifing in his Myspace photo albums. Despite Esteban's past, powerful influencers came forward after his December 2008 arrest, like former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Senator Kevin DeLeon. They were among the other seventy notable people who wrote letters to the judge vouching for Esteban's "good" character and asking that his 2 million dollar bail be reduced on grounds that he was "considerate, gentle, and well mannered." The request from these politicians was successful. Esteban’s bail was reduced to half and he walked free upon payment until June of 2010, when he took a plea bargain that resulted in a sixteen-year jail sentence.
Thanks to Schwarzenegger’s dirty politics, after serving only six months in Mule Creek State Prison, Esteban's punishment was reduced to seven-years, of which he will only have to serve 85 percent of the time. To add insult to injury, not only was Esteban being housed in a special needs yard, but his father has also been caught sending bribes to prison guards. When Esteban is released in 2016, his equally guilty cohort, the second person responsible for Lu’s death, Ryan Jett, will have to stay behind bars and serve the full sixteen-year term. Unlike Esteban, Ryan won't get the perks of being a politician’s son.
Somehow, through all of the turmoil, my family still had a beacon of hope. When Schwarzenegger granted Esteban clemency he violated the 2008 Victim's Bill of Rights: Marsy's Law. The law states that the victim's family must be notified of all post arrest prisoner release decisions. Since the governor failed to notify all of the victims’ families in this case, he violated constitutional rights. Schwarzenegger's move resulted in public outrage and a outpouring of negative press. The Republican Party denounced the commutation and the incumbent Governor, Jerry Brown, took legal action issuing a new law that requires governors to give prosecutors written notice no less than ten days before acting on an application that would grant a prisoner clemency.
In May of 2011, San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis filed a civil lawsuit to reverse the commutation, making it the first time for a district attorney to file on the victims’ behalf. A judge ruled that the governor did not break the law when commuting Nuñez’s sentence even though the commutation was “repugnant to the citizenry of this state.” On March 10, 2014, an appeal was filed to overturn the commutation. If overturned, Esteban's sixteen-year sentence would have been reinstated and balance of the justice scale restored. Unfortunately, in June of 2015, the court upheld Schwarzenegger's decision. The commutation was not overturned. As of now, we are still waiting to see if our final appeal will be heard by the Supreme Court.
This is a story of the haves versus the have-nots, and of a sister’s experience through a world of corruption in a flawed justice system. This is my story, "In Lu of Justice."
NOTE: This is still a rough first draft in progress. Thanks for reading!
At 10:30 on the morning of October 4, 2008, San Diego County Deputy Medical Examiner Steven Campman arrived at San Diego State University. He was there to prepare, package, and remove the body of a student who had been brutally stabbed to death. The homicide took place in the middle of 55th Street between Cox Arena—home stadium of the SDSU Aztecs basketball team—and the university’s Peterson Gym. The usual morning rush of students stretching on the sidewalk in yoga pants and tennis shoes was scarce. Instead, busy bodies and police officers swarmed the area in a frenzy, trying to piece together the violence that occurred several hours earlier.
Campman walked along the palm tree lined avenue toward the scene of the crime. The recent death of summer brought a somber chill to the air. Fall had officially arrived alongside the first semester of a new school year as always, but unlike every year before, this one would be different. The murder would loom over campus like a dark cloud, haunting students as they passed the memorial that marked the place where the victim fell. It would serve as a warning to students that nowhere was truly safe, not even the grounds of a well-populated college.
The medical examiner spotted what could have only been the lump of a body, partially covered by a yellow rescue blanket. As he got closer he could see the victim’s arms and legs extend out like a starfish. Because this was a homicide, police left the corpse to wait for the medical examiner’s arrival as he was legally the only person allowed to touch the decedent after paramedics called time of death. Campman bent down and slowly lifted the covering. Nearby spectators craned their necks and whispered from a safe distance as they tried to get a look at the person underneath, an ethnically ambiguous twenty-something male with dark hair lying face up in a pool of blood. The unveiling revealed that remnants of medical intervention were still on the body, including a plastic device placed in the victim’s mouth to hold the airway open, and defibrillator pads, which were stuck to the victim’s chest. The young man was thin for someone just under six-feet tall and Campman deduced that he must have weighed no more than 145 pounds. Facial injuries to the victim’s left orbital area provided evidence that he had been punched or struck. Campman inspected the body further and observed post-mortem changes. The victim’s limbs were stiff, cold, and had lost the color of life. A horizontal stab wound was also visible on the young man’s exposed chest between his nipple and breastbone. The autopsy would later reveal that it measured over one inch long by three and a half inches deep. The left ventricle of the heart and upper lobe of the left lung were severed, while the fifth rib was incised and the sixth partially cut.
Campman documented the shape of the wound’s entry points and found that the tip in the center of the body was more squared than the one toward the outside. This indicated a single-edged knife was the weapon responsible. What the medical examiner knew of these types of stabbings was that they resulted in exsanguination, blood loss to a degree sufficient enough to cause death. A collection of blood measuring more than a half-liter pooling in the victim’s chest cavity confirmed Campman’s theory. The blood had spilled out onto the victim’s clothing and limbs, and ultimately trickled to the ground below.
Blood was also smeared on the parking sign next to the body. The height at which the red dribble began led Campman to believe that after being stabbed, the young man bent over and rested on the sign. Based on his professional expertise, the medical examiner knew that the victim would have gone into hypovolemic shock next. Abrasions across the forehead, and the fact that blood was under the body suggested that the young man then fell face-down into the plants surrounding the sign before turning over and dying on his back.
Finally, Campman observed the decedent’s attire. The young man wore a white tank top under a short-sleeved grey and blue plaid button up. He also wore a pair of jeans adorned by a black leather belt with a white metal buckle. In his pant pockets were a lighter, pack of cigarettes, key ring, cell phone, and wallet, which the medical examiner rifled through in search of a driver’s license. When he found it, he identified the victim as 22-year-old Luis Santos, my little brother.
Saturday, October 4, 2008
The day Luis died was the day my adult life was supposed to begin. I had graduated from college six months before and was working as a producer at a digital television company. All of this was very exciting for someone trying to make it in Hollywood. The day started with excitement. I was on set filming a web series with friends when I got the call.
“Brigida, I need you to call me back as soon as you can,” Navid’s voice whispered in my voicemail. “Lu got jumped last night. It’s really bad...I need to talk to you.”
Lu was the nickname my brother’s friends gave him in grade school. Unlike the twenty nicknames I was given by people who had difficulty pronouncing my Portuguese name, Lu actually stuck.
Navid’s words echoed and I panicked while playing out every terrible scenario in my mind: twenty fists and boots mauling Lu’s face, a robbery at gunpoint, a beating so hard it left him with brain damage. I called Navid back.
“Hello?” he answered in the middle of the first ring.
“Navid, what happened?” I asked.
“Last night Luis and Brandon got jumped,” he said. “Keith, Evan and Jason too. They got stabbed and someone died.” He whimpered and sucked in a deep stuttering breath before firing off a list of regrets in staccato fashion. “Brigida, I think Luis is dead. I should have been there. He came over last night before some parties. Asked me to go with him. I was studying. I should have been there.”
He cried like a man trying not to cry. “You think Luis is what?” I asked in disbelief. I braced myself and tried to stay calm but all I could hear was my heart thumping in my ears, veins pulsing in my forehead and sour nausea in the pit of my stomach.
“I don’t know for sure, but that’s what I’ve heard from everyone,” he added. He sounded like someone who did know for sure but was too afraid to say the words out loud.
“Maybe no one actually died,” I said. “Maybe they’re all fine.”
“Yeah,” Navid said. “Maybe it wasn’t Lu.”
“Let’s try to figure out what really happened, okay?” I ran to the computer and tapped the buttons on the mouse to wake the screen but it was slow to start. The monitor blinked black for a frustrating minute too long.
“Go to the university website and look at police reports,” Navid said. I typed in the address he recited and scrolled down the page to an article about a knife fight that had broken out in front of the Peterson Gym.
I read out loud, “One victim perished. No names have been released yet.” My fingers bounced across the keyboard asking Google for answers. The story was too fresh to pull results. “Nothing’s coming up,” I said. “But at least it doesn’t say his name.”
“Brigida,” Navid said.
“I’ve got to go,” I said, hanging up without a goodbye. Someone died. My hands shook as I dialed my brother’s number.
“Hi, this is Luis, leave a message.”
Lu was a late bloomer, always so skinny and small. He didn’t blossom until the end of his senior year in high school, after I had already begun my freshman year of college in Los Angeles. We spoke over the phone weekly and I noticed the gradual change in his voice, but his transition into manhood wasn’t confirmed until I went back to the Bay Area to visit my family over my first spring break.
When I arrived at the front stoop of the house we grew up in, I looked up at the blue and red stained glass window and smiled. Lu opened the door as soon as I drummed my knuckles to the wood, as if he’d been waiting for me. “Sister,” he said while giving me a big genuine hug. He pronounced the word as if it was two, enunciating, “Sis. Ter.”
That moment, my role at home picked up where I had left it eight months before when Lu and I were both still just two children living under our parents’ roof.
“My God,” I said. “You’re so tall. And your voice…” I gasped for dramatic effect. “You must have grown five inches.” My arm stretched until my longest finger grazed his buzzed head. “This is a big moment,” I said.
Up until then, I’d only ever known him as a boy. But there I stood—face to shoulder—meeting Luis, the man. “You’re no longer my little brother,” I said. He was proudly featuring whatever physical proof he had of being an adult via the very beginning sprouts of what was supposed to be a mustache and goatee combo.
“What is this?” I asked while poking the baby fuzz on his upper lip with my index finger. It looked like a caterpillar, the soft kind with sparse hairs clinging to its back.
He turned his face away, rejecting my hand. “Dammit, I’m a man and men have facial hair,” he said.
“I missed you,” I said.
I hung up and called my brother again and again. I called our parents.
“Hello?” they said together over the speakerphone.
“Dad, I just talked to Navid,” I whispered.
“He told us,” my dad said cutting me off, his voice a notch too loud. “We’ll call you back as soon as we get in contact with the hospital or police.” He sounded more concerned than I had ever heard him in my life.
A few minutes later, they called and told me to sit down.
“We called the hospitals in San Diego to find out who died,” my Dad said. “And yes, it is Luis.” He stated the awful news as if it were a simple fact. And yes, it is Luis.
“Luis is dead?” I didn’t understand. My immediate response wasn’t emotional. I knew what I was supposed to feel. And how I was supposed to react. But I couldn’t jump-start the appropriate emotional breakdown. I consciously blinked and scrunched my face to try and summon the tears but stood dry-eyed with my mouth open instead, detached, as if observing a scene happening to somebody else.