Commentary: Jury Gets It Right in Acquitting Immigrant in the Killing of Steinle

My View: Prosecution Overreached Trying to Get Murder Charge in Politically Charged Case

It was a politically charged case from the start, that pitted the politics of Trump and anti-immigration sentiment against the liberal policies of San Francisco and California, in shielding undocumented immigrants from federal law.

While the San Francisco Chronicle called this “a stunning acquittal on murder and manslaughter charges,” in the end the case ended up, as I expected, with an acquittal because the facts did not fit the charge of murder.

The defense’ contention all along was that this was an accident.  There was evidence presented by the defense that the shot ricocheted off the ground, bouncing up and piercing the heart of the unfortunate victim.  The defense would argue that the discharge was accidental, occurring after the defendant stumbled on the pier.

The jury did find 45-year-old Jose Ines Garcia Zarate guilty of a lesser charge of a felon in possession of a gun, for which he could be sentenced to 16 months to three years in state prison, but he has already served nearly two and a half years, meaning whatever the sentence is, he’ll be released.

The defense attorney argued that the case was overcharged, while US Attorney General Jeff Sessions was quick to blame the killing on San Francisco’s sanctuary city policy.

The prosecutors argued that Garcia Zarate brought the gun to the pier in order to do harm.  They argued that he aimed at Kate Steinle and pulled the trigger.  Assistant District Attorney Diana Garcia
attempted to make the case that the pistol involved in the shooting could not have fired without a firm pull of the trigger and argued that Mr. Zarate tossed the weapon into the bay and fled the scene.

In the meantime, the charge of murder always seemed overcharged.  You can argue that Mr. Zarate had been deported multiple times.  You can argue that he had a criminal background.  But his criminal background was largely for nonviolent drug crimes.

Matt Gonzalez of the SF Public Defender’s Office argued that his client had never handled a gun.

There was also the four-hour long police interrogation of Mr. Zarate, without the benefit of counsel, in which he offered varying and often contradictory statements about his actions on the pier.

The Chronicle in covering the case noted, “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.”

But, given the specific conditions of the interrogation, none of that is necessarily surprising or even indicative that Mr. Zarate was being deceptive.  Under pressure, subjects who are interrogated will often give contradictory accounts and at times even falsely incriminate themselves.

Mr. Gonzalez would argue that Mr. Zarate, with only a second-grade education and a limited understanding of English, did not fully understand the questions that the police asked him through an interpreter.

In the end, the prosecution simply could not establish beyond a reasonable doubt a case for murder.  A manslaughter conviction in this case would have made more sense, but I often believe that when the prosecution overreaches on the evidence it harms the entire case.

It came down to whether the jury believed that the gun was intentionally fired or accidentally went off.  The defense was better able to attack the interrogation at the police station.

Of course the specific facts of this case are nothing compared to the politics of sanctuary cities, where the opposition led by President Trump would argue that, but for the liberal policy in San Francisco and California, Mr. Zarate would not have been around to fire the trigger.

On the other hand, to ignite another debate you could argue that if it weren’t for lax gun laws, there would have been no stolen pistol for Mr. Zarate to have fired in the first place.

President Trump in a tweet called it, “A disgraceful verdict in the Kate Steinle case! No wonder the people of our Country are so angry with Illegal Immigration.”

“When jurisdictions choose to return criminal aliens to the streets rather than turning them over to federal immigration authorities, they put the public’s safety at risk,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement.  “San Francisco’s decision to protect criminal aliens led to the preventable and heartbreaking death of Kate Steinle.”

On the other hand you could say the same thing about gun laws and the ability for these weapons to be available in the first place.  This isn’t about policy or even protecting the innocent, it is about politics.

Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas also chimed in.

“I am disappointed and angry at the not-guilty verdict for Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, an illegal alien who had several felony convictions & was deported from the US five times,” Senator Cruz tweeted. “Justice must be served for Kate Steinle.”

However, the San Francisco Public Defender fired back.

“The untimely death of Kate Steinle was a horrible tragedy. That tragedy was compounded when it was used as political fodder for then-candidate Donald Trump’s anti-immigration agenda,” San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi said in a statement. “Despite the unfairly politicized atmosphere surrounding this case, jurors focused on the evidence, which was clear and convincing, and rendered a just verdict.”

Matt Gonzalez, who represented Mr. Zarate in the courtroom, in 2008 was the running mate of Ralph Nader who ran for President.

He said, “There are a number of people that have commented on this case in the last couple of years — the attorney general of the United States, the president and vice president of the United States — let me just remind them that they themselves are under investigation by a special prosecutor in Washington, D.C.

“They may themselves soon avail themselves of the presumption of innocence and beyond a reasonable doubt standard,” Mr. Gonzalez said.

For us the politics of sanctuary cities and immigration, while important, take a back seat to the right of due process.  My view is that some of the conservatives were convinced of Mr. Zarate’s guilt from the start, even if the facts really did not fit the crime of murder.

Was this a crime at all or just a very tragic accident that could have been prevented just as easily by better storage and care of a weapon?  The jury ruled for the defendant in this case, convinced of the latter.  Conservatives believe that, with better immigration laws, Ms. Steinle would be still alive.  I believe that, with better gun laws, the same could be said.

Let the politics play itself out now, because the jury ruled on the law and, in this country, the rule of law gets primacy.

—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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14 thoughts on “Commentary: Jury Gets It Right in Acquitting Immigrant in the Killing of Steinle”

  1. Keith O

    A manslaughter conviction in this case would have made more sense, but I often believe that when a prosecution overreaches on the evidence that it harms the entire case.

    I agree, it wasn’t his intent to kill her and involuntary manslaughter should’ve been the charge.

    Of course the specific facts of this case are nothing compared to the politics of Sanctuary Cities, where the opposition led by President Trump would argue that but for the liberal policy in San Francisco and California, Mr. Zarate would not have been around to fire the trigger.

    President Trump would be right, ICE had asked for Zarate but San Francisco refused to turn him over and instead released him.

    This is one of the big reasons Trump got elected in the first place and cases like this will only serve to get him re-elected to a second term.

    The Chronicle covering the case noted, “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.”
    But given the specific conditions of the interrogation none of that is necessarily surprising or even indicative that Mr. Zarate was being deceptive.  Under pressure, subjects who are interrogated will often give contradictory accounts and at times even falsely incriminate themselves.

    Yes, people will say the strangest things after they’ve shot and killed someone.

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      “Yes, people will say the strangest things after they’ve shot and killed someone.”

      You say that as dismissive, but it’s actually a very accurate statement – intentional or not. You just acknowledged that it wasn’t his intent to kill her.

      1. Keith O

        Yes, I don’t believe it was intentional, but he still tried to lie and cover for what he did.  He also threw the weapon into the bay which was later recovered.  IMO this guy is a total sleaze ball, you making excuses for him boggles me.

        1. David Greenwald Post author

          I largely view the behavior leading to the incident as separated from the later conduct and answers to the interrogation. I think it’s a natural reaction to panic and attempt to hide/ cover it up fearing that he would not be believed (which he wasn’t) or that he would be in trouble regardless. I don’t see him as a total sleaze, I see him as a flawed human being who made mistakes leading up to and following the incident. The question is what his legal liability was. I could justify manslaughter, but not murder in this case. I can see how the jury acquitted him.

    2. Tia Will

      Keith

      Yes, people will say the strangest things after they’ve shot and killed someone.”

      Probably true. But also true that people innocent of all wrongdoing will also say the strangest things when subjected to 4 hour long interrogations conducted through an interpreter. My evidence ?  Patients who are not English speakers will seemingly completely contradict themselves when providing a medical history through an interpreter. I know because I speak enough Spanish to know when either the interpreter or the patient has misunderstood the question and response. This is a frequent, not unusual event.

      1. Keith O

        Yeah, I can easily see how when explaining shooting someone on a dock could easily lead to the misinterpretation of one saying he was shooting at a sea lion or saying he accidentally stepped on a gun and then finally say they were spinning the gun and it accidently went off.  Happens all of the time.

        I think David is right when he wrote that “the natural reaction to panic and attempt to hide/ cover it up fearing that he would not be believed (which he wasn’t) or that he would be in trouble regardless.  That sounds like a valid explanation.”

        But in the meantime everyone please give your explanations and excuses for Zarate for the tragic killing of a young beautiful soul.

    3. Rodney J

      Voluntary manslaughter is appropriate when the defendant acts under heat of passion or imperfect self defense.  Neither apply here.  Involuntary manslaughter is appropriate when the defendant acts legally but with negligence (criminal negligence) or commits a misdeamenor causing death.  Again neither apply here.  So the prosecution was stuck with 2nd degree murder (reckless disregard for human life) or reckless discharge which requires the intent to fire the gun.  Again the jury rejected  both.  A brilliant job by the defense.  The facts and law were in their favor, predjudice and even hatred against them.  I agree with David, a just verdict.   And must say, only in San Francisco, or places like the most  interesting city on earth.

      However comparing the sanctuary city issues to gun control is truly comparing apples to oranges.  This was not a case where the gun was an automatic weapon it was a pistol, apparantly previously owned the by SF P.D.  This weapon could be picked up by anyone, virtually anywhere and short of a total ban on private ownership of guns these guns will always be available.

      But sanctuary cities are  a perfect example of 2 sides who refuse to negotiate, compormise and solve a problem.  When your back in this country after multiple convictions for felonies and multiple deportations and law enforcement upon you come into jail can’t note this status and inform immigration of it upon release thats just plain wrong and dangerous.  And as long as many others disagree with this and pass local laws preventing this the Kate Steinle  tradgedies and many more like it will continue and yes, could have been avoided. And insisting on a warrant, not just a detainer is beyond silly, beyond technical it just adds to the danger.

  2. Howard P

    Missing from the narrative, is (here, and have not seen anything elsewhere) what INS will now do, given the publicity and his imminent release…

    If INS does not act, will pretty much blow a hole in the theory that the young woman would still be alive if he had been turned over to INS…

    Still not clear if he was even in custody since his last illegal/unauthorized entry, prior to the tragic event.

  3. David Greenwald

    I wanted to address this point from Keith now that my day has settled down a little: “President Trump would be right, ICE had asked for Zarate but San Francisco refused to turn him over and instead released him.”

    That’s not an accurate account of what happened or how the law works.

    ICE requested a detainer on the suspect.  They did NOT provide a warrant.  Jurisdictions would engage in unconstitutional behavior for detaining someone without cause.

    If ICE had a reason to arrest him they should have obtained a duly executed warrant.  They did not.

    ICE had the ability to do this all on their own and chose not to.

    1. Howard P

      And, they have a new opportunity… let’s see how INS and SF move forward… I have no problem with the dude getting deported again… I do have a problem with him being sheltered, fed, medical needs taken care of, on the public dole, if the end result, when released, is deportation.

      At least one poster doesn’t seem to get the concept… that individual seems to want a lengthier sentence, paid for by taxpayers (and the individual opposes wasteful public spending), and then deportation… motivation for that view completely eludes me.

      Sounds wierd. And contradictory…

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