The jury in the month-long trial of the undocumented Mexican immigrant accused of murdering San Francisco resident Kate Steinle on a city pier two years ago has begun its deliberations.
San Francisco prosecutors say that 45-year old Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, a homeless man who had been deported multiple times, intentionally fired the single shot that killed the 32-year old Steinle as she was walking arm-in-arm with her father on July 1, 2015.
Steinle’s death became a flashpoint in the national debate over illegal immigration and the policies of many so-called sanctuary cities as Donald Trump often cited the Steinle case in campaign speeches as a justification for an immigration crackdown.
Defense attorneys for Garcia Zarate say he has no history of violence and that the shooting was an accident. They argue that Garcia Zarate found the handgun—a .40 caliber Sig Sauer—wrapped in a cloth under his seat on the pier and that the gun discharged as he was handling it.
The defense says the single shot ricocheted off the concrete ground about 12 to 15 feet away from Zarate and then traveled another 78 feet or more before striking Steinle in the back. A city crime scene inspector told the jury that the defendant aimed the gun in Steinle’s direction seeking to strike her.
The gun had been stolen four days earlier from the parked car of a visiting off-duty Bureau of Land Management ranger. The prosecution and defense agree that there is no evidence linking Garcia Zarate to that robbery.
As KQED’s Alex Emslie told All Things Considered, the case hangs on whether the jury concludes that Garcia Zarate intentionally shot Steinle as the prosecution argued, or that it was a tragic accident, as the defense contends.
“That ricochet has been a cornerstone of the defense’s case, saying that you can’t intentionally shoot someone and ricochet the bullet and have it fly so far after the ricochet. That’s an impossible intentional shot,” said Emslie.
Garcia Zarate, who is reported to have no more than a second grade education, had been deported five times and was scheduled for a sixth deportation after serving a 46-month federal prison term for felony re-entry to the United States. But instead of deporting him, federal authorities transferred him to San Francisco on a warrant for a 20-year old marijuana charge. San Francisco prosecutors eventually dropped the charge because evidence in the case had been destroyed. The Sheriff’s Department released Garcia Zarate under its sanctuary city policy that directs local law enforcement to ignore federal detainer requests. The Steinle killing happened about two-and-a-half months after Garcia Zarate was released.
In the wake of Steinle’s death, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors changed its policy to cooperate with federal authorities in cases where they have a warrant for an incarcerated undocumented immigrant.