Despite immigration debate, US jury acquits Mexican national of murder

The shooting death of Kate Steinle on a San Francisco pier in 2015 by homeless illegal immigrant Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, which became the center of a national immigration policy debate, has been ruled an accident.  

Michael Macor/San Francisco Chronicle/AP/File
Jose Ines Garcia Zarate (r.) is led into the courtroom by San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi (l.) and Assistant District Attorney Diana Garciaor (c.) for his arraignment at the Hall of Justice in San Francisco on July 7, 2015.

Though the 2015 shooting death of Kate Steinle became a flashpoint in an intense national debate over immigration, the issue was never addressed inside the courtroom where a jury acquitted a Mexican national of murder and manslaughter – a verdict President Trump called a "complete travesty of justice."

From the outset, the judge barred any mention of Jose Ines Garcia Zarate's immigration status or the five times he was arrested and deported to Mexico before he came back across the border. The judge said the jury should consider only Mr. Garcia Zarate's intentions on the July evening when Ms. Steinle was shot.

"His immigration status had no bearing on whether he purposely pulled the trigger or not," legal analyst and defense attorney Dan Horowitz said of the immigration issue.

San Francisco Deputy District Attorney Diana Garcia argued the shooting was murder. The jury sided with the defense, which argued that the shooting was an accident, and found him guilty only of being a felon in possession of a firearm. That charge carries a maximum of three years in jail.

Ms. Steinle was shot while walking with her father and a family friend on a San Francisco pier popular with tourists. Garcia Zarate said he was sitting on the pier when he found a gun under a chair. He said the gun was wrapped in a T-shirt and accidentally fired when he picked it up.

Before the shooting, Garcia Zarate had finished a federal prison sentence for illegal re-entry into the United States and had been transferred to San Francisco's jail in March 2015 to face a 20-year-old charge for selling marijuana.

The sheriff's department released him a few days after prosecutors dropped the marijuana charge, despite a request from federal immigration officials to detain him for deportation.

"San Francisco's decision to protect criminal aliens led to the preventable and heartbreaking death of Kate Steinle," US Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement Thursday night. "I urge the leaders of the nation's communities to reflect on the outcome of this case and consider carefully the harm they are doing to their citizens by refusing to cooperate with federal law enforcement officers."

San Francisco is known as a "sanctuary city" because its policies bar local police from helping federal authorities identify and deport immigrants that came to the US illegally.

Former President Barack Obama continued his Republican predecessor's policy which allowed federal immigration officials to request local law enforcement detain for up to 48 hours people suspected of living in the country illegally. But, in 2014, a federal judge ruled the practice of holding them without a warrant was likely unconstitutional.

At the time of the shooting, then-candidate Trump and others pointed to Steinle's death as reasons why the country's immigration laws should be tightened.

In a pre-dawn tweet Friday, the president blamed Democrats, saying: "The Schumer/Pelosi Democrats are so weak on Crime that they will pay a price in the 2018 and 2020 Elections." He was referring to Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer (D) of New York and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D) of California.

He had called the verdict "disgraceful" on Thursday. And in Friday's social media messaging, Trump said that "the Kate Steinle killer came back and back over the weakly protected Obama border, always committing crimes and being violent, and yet this info was not used in court."

"His exoneration is a complete travesty of justice. BUILD THE WALL," Trump tweeted.

Defense attorney Francisco Ugarte said: "From Day 1 this case was used as a means to foment hate, to foment division, and to foment a program of mass deportation. It was used to catapult a presidency along that philosophy of hate of others." He called the verdict a "vindication for the rest of immigrants."

ICE also blamed San Francisco's policy for Steinle's death and said Thursday night it would "ultimately remove" Garcia Zarate from the country.

Jurors left the courtroom Thursday without comment and the judge sealed their identities.

Steinle's father, Jim, who was walking with her on the pier when she was killed, told the San Francisco Chronicle that "justice was rendered, but it was not served."

"We're just shocked – saddened and shocked ... that's about it," he said in an interview the family said would be its last.

Michael Cardoza, a longtime San Francisco Bay Area lawyer said the prosecutor made a mistake by asking the jury to convict Garcia Zarate of first-degree murder despite strong evidence that the bullet ricocheted around 90 feet before fatally striking Steinle on July 1, 2015. Mr. Cardoza said a better case could have been made to convince jurors Garcia Zarate had a "reckless disregard for human life" and convicted him of second-degree murder.

"The prosecutor got greedy," Cardoza said. "She lost credibility when she told jurors he pointed the gun at Kate Steinle."

Ms. Garcia declined comment afterward. Alex Bastian, a spokesman for the San Francisco district attorney's office, said the verdict "was not the one we were hoping for" but said prosecutors respect the jury's decision.

Prosecutors initially charged Garcia Zarate with second-degree murder, which meant they had to show jurors he had a "willful disregard for human life" when he picked up the gun. But at the end of the trial, the judge agreed to the prosecutor's request that jurors could also consider convicting him of first-degree murder if they believed Garcia Zarate meant to kill Steinle.

Garcia Zarate's attorneys argued that the ricochet of the fatal bullet supported an accidental shooting theory. Defense attorney Matt Gonzalez told jurors he knows it's difficult to believe Garcia Zarate found an object that turned out to be a weapon, which fired when he picked it up.

But he said Garcia Zarate had no motivation to kill Steinle and that as awful as her death was, "nothing you do is going to fix that."

A US Bureau of Land Management ranger reported the gun stolen from his SUV parked in San Francisco a few days before the shooting.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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