Sunday Commentary: What Happened to Innocent until Proven Guilty?

It seems there has been a great rush to judgment on the guilt of Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez.  He is the man accused of shooting and killing Kate Steinle in July of 2015, which has triggered a call for immigration reform and Kate’s Law.

As one of our posters argued, “He has admitted firing the shot that killed her many times. He is guilty, the question is of what.”

But is he?

At the preliminary hearing back in March, Matt Gonzalez, one of the chief public defenders in San Francisco, argued that the shooting was an accident.  He noted in his arguments that the fatal bullet was damaged on one side, indicating it had ricocheted off the ground.

Mr. Lopez-Sanchez said he threw the gun in the bay so it would stop firing.

The gun was a pistol stolen from the car of a federal Bureau of Land Management agent in San Francisco four days earlier. Mr. Lopez-Sanchez, who was homeless, said he found the gun wrapped in a T-shirt under a bench.

I have known Matt Gonzalez for over ten years, since he came to Davis as a private attorney to represent Halema Buzayan, who was the 16-year-old Muslim girl falsely accused of a hit and run – charges that were ultimately dismissed by Judge Thomas Warriner in Yolo County Superior Court.  Now Mr. Gonzalez is the number two man in the San Francisco Public Defender’s office.

Mr. Gonzalez this week in an op-ed argued that the bill called “Kate’s Law” would not have prevented the death of Ms. Steinle.  Instead, he argued, “Her death was the result of systemic defects and individual errors that the bill does not address. What the law will do is fill our already overcrowded prisons with nonviolent immigrants.”

Mr. Lopez-Sanchez, Mr. Gonzalez writes, “didn’t travel to San Francisco voluntarily. He was transferred here by federal authorities, because San Francisco maintained a 20-year-old warrant in a marijuana offense. Lopez Sanchez then appeared in San Francisco Superior Court, where his case was promptly and predictably dismissed and he was released.”

It was at this point that Mr. Lopez-Sanchez “described picking up an object wrapped in a T-shirt that discharged while he handled it.”

He writes, “What is uncontested: He did not know the victim, she was 100 feet away from him when shot, and the single bullet ricocheted off the concrete pier near where Lopez Sanchez was seated. The Sig Sauer .40 caliber automatic pistol, known for having a hair trigger, is documented in hundreds of accidental discharges, even when handled by trained law enforcement.”

Moreover, “The firearm should never have been on the streets. The Bureau of Land Management official who left his loaded weapon unsecured in a car that was burglarized has never accounted for his negligence in starting the chain of events that resulted in Steinle’s death.”

Many people have used this case to argue for deporting undocumented immigrants or at least those who have committed crimes.  Mr. Gonzalez notes that “it is politically expedient to cast Lopez Sanchez as dangerous.”

The truth is “he’s never previously been charged with a crime of violence.”

Leaving aside debates on immigration, the question before the court when this finally goes to trial is whether Mr. Lopez-Sanchez committed a crime.

That seems very questionable.

For instance, during the preliminary hearing, the Mercury News reports, “Ballistics experts testified that the fatal bullet ricocheted from the pier deck just feet in front of Lopez Sanchez and traveled about 75 feet before hitting Steinle in the back.”

The prosecutor in this case, Diane Garcia, argued that Mr. Lopez-Sanchez “designed a skip-shot to murder Steinle.”

However, ballistics experts say that “no marksman could have made such a shot on purpose because the flight of the bullet after the ricochet could not be controlled.”

While that evidence is not enough to get the charges dismissed against the defendant in a preliminary hearing that has a low standard of probable cause, it seems difficult to believe that a jury would convict a man of murder after hearing testimony of that sort from a ballistics expert.

If this proves to be true, Mr. Lopez-Sanchez could very well be acquitted and this entire episode could end up being a highly politically charged accidental death.

But that hasn’t stopped a rush to judgment on the part of prosecutors and commenters.  And it hasn’t stopped Congress from trying to legislatively address a situation that – I agree with Matt Gonzalez – does nothing to prevent this tragedy.

The bill does two things: it increases the maximum sentence from people previously deported who attempt to re-enter the US from two years to 10; and it increases the maximum sentence for people who re-enter after being convicted of certain criminal offenses — including for immigration offenses — to up to 25 years.

Is that really what we want to do?  Fill our prisons for years with people who re-entered the U.S.?  At a time when we are trying to reduce sentencing, this seems overkill.

Matt Gonzalez writes, “Passing Kate’s Law as a response to this tragedy is the legal equivalent of invading Iraq in response to 911 — a preying upon emotions to further a pre-existing agenda. It is a cynical anti-immigrant effort unrelated to Steinle’s death that in no way honors her memory.”

Meanwhile, those who have already tried and convicted Mr. Lopez-Sanchez are probably going to be in for a shock if and when he is acquitted of murder.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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4 thoughts on “Sunday Commentary: What Happened to Innocent until Proven Guilty?”

  1. Jim Hoch

    Unbelievably some people still say OJ murdered his ex-wife and the waiter despite the fact he was acquitted by a jury and spent years searching for the actual killer on golf courses across the US. Bunch of communists…

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