Garcia Zarate acquitted in San Francisco pier killing
A homeless man whose undocumented immigration status intensified a national debate over the ethics of sanctuary laws was acquitted of murder and manslaughter charges Thursday in the shooting of Kate Steinle as she strolled with her father on Pier 14 to take in a view of San Francisco Bay.
In returning its verdict on the sixth day of deliberations, the San Francisco Superior Court jury also found Jose Ines Garcia Zarate not guilty of assault with a firearm, apparently seeing credence in defense attorneys’ argument that the shot that ricocheted off the concrete ground was an accident, with the gun discharging after the defendant stumbled upon it on the waterfront.
The panel convicted Garcia Zarate, 45, of a single lesser charge of being a felon in possession of a gun. The charge carries possible sentences of 16 months, two years or three years in state prison. Garcia Zarate — who has already served well over two years in jail and gets credit for that time — will be sentenced at a date not yet determined.
Jurors exited the city’s Hall of Justice quickly and declined to discuss their deliberations. “If I’m going to speak to anybody, I’m not going to do it today,” said one man, who declined to give his name. “I have to collect my thoughts.”
Garcia Zarate, a Mexican citizen who was released from San Francisco jail before the killing despite a federal request that he be held for his sixth deportation, was charged from the beginning with murder, and prosecutors gave the jury the option of convicting him of first-degree murder, second-degree murder or involuntary manslaughter. Jurors rejected all three possible verdicts.
The outcome is certain to infuriate opponents of the San Francisco sanctuary policies that allowed Garcia Zarate’s release. However, the defendant is not likely to be released in the city.
Garcia Zarate may be turned over to the state prison system after sentencing. In any event, San Francisco officials have long said they will turn over undocumented immigrants to federal authorities if they obtain a warrant, and records show Garcia Zarate is being held on a U.S. Marshals Service warrant in addition to the charges in the Pier 14 case.
Steinle, 32, had been walking with her arm around her father when she was struck in the back by a single bullet on July 1, 2015. The round had skipped off the concrete ground after being fired from a pistol that had been stolen, four days earlier, from the nearby parked car of a federal ranger.
San Francisco prosecutors told the jury that Garcia Zarate intentionally brought the gun to the pier that day with the intent of doing harm, aimed the gun toward Steinle and pulled the trigger. Assistant District Attorney Diana Garcia spent much of the trial seeking to prove the gun that killed Steinle couldn’t have fired without a firm pull of the trigger, while establishing that Garcia Zarate tossed the weapon into the bay before fleeing the scene — an implication of his guilt, she said.
Defense lawyers said the shooting was an accident that happened when Garcia Zarate, who had a history of drug crimes but no record of violence, found the gun wrapped in a T-shirt or cloth under his seat on the pier just seconds before it discharged in his hands. Matt Gonzalez of the public defender’s office said his client had never handled a gun and was scared by the noise, prompting him to fling the weapon into the bay, where a diver fished it out a day later.
During the trial, jurors watched video from Garcia Zarate’s four-hour police interrogation, in which he offered varying statements about his actions on the pier. At one point he said he had aimed at a “sea animal,” and at another point, he said the gun had been under a rag that lay on the ground near the waterfront, and that it fired when he stepped on it.
Gonzalez said it was clear in the video that Garcia Zarate — who has spent much of his adult life behind bars, was living on the street before the shooting, and has a second-grade education — did not fully understand what the officers were asking him through an officer’s Spanish translation.
Grainy surveillance footage taken by a camera positioned a quarter-mile away showed that just before Garcia Zarate took his seat on the pier, a group of six people gathered at the spot. Gonzalez said it was possible that those people had discarded the gun that killed Steinle.
The .40-caliber Sig Sauer pistol had been stolen from a U.S. Bureau of Land Management ranger’s car after he drove into the city and parked along the Embarcadero. No one has been arrested in the burglary, one of several cases in recent years in which Bay Area law enforcement officers lost guns to thieves and which have prompted legislators to push for tougher requirements for securing weapons.
In assessing guilt or innocence, jurors had to ignore the political firestorm that hit San Francisco in the days following Steinle’s death. Proponents of stricter enforcement of immigration laws pointed to the killing as an example of the dangers of shielding people who are in the U.S. illegally, and Donald Trump referred to the crime several times during his 2016 presidential campaign.
“My opponent wants sanctuary cities,” Trump said in his nomination acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. “But where was the sanctuary for Kate Steinle?”
Before the shooting, Garcia Zarate had been on track for a sixth deportation after serving 46 months in prison for felony re-entry into the country. But his course changed when he was transferred from federal custody to San Francisco jail in March 2015 on an old warrant alleging he fled marijuana charges in 1995.
When city prosecutors discharged the case, the Sheriff’s Department released Garcia Zarate despite a federal request to hold him for deportation. Then-Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi cited the city’s sanctuary policies, which limit local cooperation with immigration enforcement and seek to encourage undocumented people to feel comfortable having a relationship with city agencies.
Anger over Garcia Zarate’s release contributed to Mirkarimi’s 2016 re-election defeat. But San Francisco remains committed to its sanctuary status, and Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed a bill to create a statewide sanctuary policy.