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Prosecution rests in Steinle murder trial

Prosecutors concluded their case Thursday in the trial of the man charged with the 2015 fatal shooting of Kate Steinle on San Francisco’s Pier 14 with testimony from the medical examiner who conducted her autopsy.

Steinle, a 32-year-old Pleasanton native who lived in the South Beach neighborhood, was shot once on July 1, 2015 as she walked on the pier with her father and a family friend.

Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, a 45-year-old homeless Mexican citizen, is on trial for second-degree murder in her death, with prosecutors seeking to prove he fired the gun on purpose, whether or not he deliberately targeted Steinle.

Chief Medical Examiner Michael Hunter today testified in Garcia Zarate’s trial that the bullet that killed Steinle struck her in the mid-right back and damaged her spine and abdominal aorta.

The gunshot wound had an irregular shape and edges, however, and the bullet itself was deformed in an unusual manner, indicating that the shot had probably ricocheted off of a surface before it struck Steinle, Hunter said.

That ricochet is key to the defense case, which argues that Garcia Zarate fired the fatal shot by accident after he picked up a gun that he found on the pier.

Investigators located a bullet strike mark on the pier about 12 feet away from where Garcia Zarate was sitting when the shooting occurred and around 78 feet from Steinle, a distance the defense attorneys say makes the notion of a deliberate shooting improbable.

Jurors were allowed to pass around and handle the bullet Wednesday, and Matt Gonzalez, chief attorney for the public defender’s office, has said he hopes to also let them handle the gun used in the shooting when defense attorneys present their case next week.

Gonzalez has said he plans to present expert witnesses on firearms, and hopes to demonstrate to jurors how easily the gun can be fired.

The gun, a Sig Sauer P239, had been reported stolen from the vehicle of an off-duty Bureau of Land Management ranger four days earlier, but prosecutors have said they have no evidence linking Garcia Zarate to that burglary.

Despite that, prosecutor Diana Garcia today had Lt. Anthony Ravano, the lead investigator in the case, demonstrate to jurors that the gun could have fit in the pockets of the oversized black jacket and baggy jeans that Garcia Zarate was wearing at the time of the shooting.

In a police interview video played for the jurors this week, Garcia Zarate, speaking through a Spanish interpreter, gave police a number of conflicting statements about where he found the gun and how he came to fire it. In many cases he agreed to answers suggested by police, but then reverted to his own answers moments later.

Gonzalez this morning pressed Ravano on this point, getting him to acknowledge that in some cases Garcia Zarate had made false statements at the prompting of police, such as stating he was only 5 feet away from Steinle when he was in fact around 90 feet.

In other cases, he appeared to fail to understand police questions or gave strange, obviously false answers, such as when he said that he was firing at a seal or a fish. Gonzalez said those responses could be due to fatigue or language comprehension issues.

Outside of court, Gonzalez faulted police for failing to investigate leads that could have corroborated Garcia Zarate’s story, such as video evidence showing a group of people on the pier at the seat where he later sat and claimed he found the gun.

“Once they decided they didn’t believe him, they didn’t ask even basic questions that might have corroborated his story,” Gonzalez said.

Defense attorneys expect to present six or seven witnesses next week, with closing statements likely the following week.

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