A judge ruled that former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger did not break any laws when he reduced the manslaughter sentence for the son of a political ally just hours before leaving office last year.
Sacramento County superior court Judge Lloyd Connelly called Mr Schwarzenegger's decision to reduce Esteban Nunez's sentence from 16 years to seven years distasteful and "repugnant to the bulk of the citizenry of this state", but within his executive powers as governor.
Nunez is the son of the governor's onetime political ally, former assembly speaker Fabian Nunez.
Esteban Nunez pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in a 2008 attack on an unarmed group of young men after he and some friends were turned away from a fraternity party in San Diego. Three others pleaded guilty to various charges in the attack that killed 22-year-old college student Luis Santos.
Mr Santos' family and the San Diego district attorney sued, claiming that Mr Schwarzenegger violated a law that requires families to be notified about cases involving their loved ones.
Kathy Santos, Luis' mother, said outside court: "They defended a backroom deal, you know? They got away with it for today, but we're very disappointed. Where's the justice for our son? He was murdered. Two conniving politicians got away with it."
The family said the judge's words were not enough. They want the reduced sentence for Nunez thrown out.
San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis said her office will appeal against the judge's decision. The Santos family said they were considering their options.
Mr Schwarzenegger said in his commutation notice that he believed the sentence was excessive given Nunez's "limited role in the killing". He said evidence showed that Nunez's friend delivered the fatal blow, yet both men received the same 16-year-sentence.
The former governor told Newsweek in April 2011 that his office made a mistake in not notifying Santos' parents, but he defended the decision, saying: "I mean, of course you help a friend."