Following the completion of closing arguments Tuesday morning, jurors began deliberating in the trial of the man charged with fatally shooting Kate Steinle on San Francisco’s Pier 14 more than two years ago.
Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, a 45-year-old homeless Mexican citizen, is charged with murder, assault with a deadly weapon and being a felon in possession of a firearm in Steinle’s shooting on July 1, 2015.
Steinle, a 32-year-old Pleasanton native and San Francisco resident, was walking with her father and a family friend around 6:30 p.m. when she was struck in the back by a single bullet that had ricocheted off the pier around 12 feet away from Garcia Zarate before it hit her, 90 feet away.
Prosecutor Diana Garcia told jurors in closing arguments that Garcia Zarate had fired the gun deliberately in Steinle’s direction after sitting in a seat on the pier for more than 20 minutes, eyeing people in the crowd and deciding who to shoot. She described the shooting as the defendant’s “secret game of Russian roulette”:
“I don’t know why he did this, but it’s clear that he wanted to fire the gun at people. … we will never know why, we will never get in his head.”
However, defense attorneys Matt Gonzalez and Francisco Ugarte have argued during the trial that the shooting was an accident, occurring after Garcia Zarate found the gun sitting on the pier wrapped in a piece of cloth and picked it up.
The gun had been stolen from a U.S. Bureau of Land Management ranger’s vehicle several days earlier, but no evidence links Garcia Zarate to that burglary.
Gonzalez has highlighted the ricochet, the distance from which the shot was taken, the absence of a second shot and the lack of any motive as evidence in favor of an accidental shooting.
In addition, he presented video evidence during the trial showing a group of people at the same seat Garcia Zarate occupied a short time later, picking up and setting down objects on the ground.
Gonzalez argued they were a possible source of the stolen gun:
“All of this is consistent with the idea that he picked up an object, didn’t know its contents and a bullet was fired.”
Gonzalez said, calling the bundle containing the gun “an accident waiting to happen”:
“He had not intent to hurt anyone.”
Garcia called that account a “fiction,” arguing that it was far more likely that Garcia Zarate obtained the gun somewhere other than the pier. She noted that the pockets in his jeans and coat were big enough to hold the gun, but did not have positive evidence that it was in there.
Garcia Zarate was arrested within about an hour of the shooting after he was identified through photos taken by bystanders at the scene.
He admitted to firing the gun in an interrogation with police but also stated several times that he found it on the pier and that it went off on its own. The interrogation included a series of contradictory and false statements that have in some cases been as helpful to the defense case as to the prosecution.
Jurors are being asked to consider first- and second-degree murder verdicts as well as involuntary manslaughter.
Garcia Zarate’s case triggered national controversy because he was released from jail in San Francisco a few months before the shooting without notification to federal immigration authorities despite a pending immigration detainer request.
The case became part of the federal election debate when Donald Trump and other Republicans used it as a reason to attack Sanctuary City policies used by San Francisco and many other jurisdictions to limit the cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration authorities.
Garcia Zarate has prior convictions for a drug charge and for re-entering the country after deportation. He had just completed a federal prison sentence for re-entering the country after deportation when he was transferred to San Francisco by federal authorities based on a warrant for a marijuana charge, but that charge was dismissed by San Francisco prosecutors after he arrived.
Garcia Zarate’s immigration status has not played a role in the case presented by prosecutors.
Garcia Zarate, a slight man, has sat quietly in court, listening intently to a Spanish-language translation of proceedings. A niece of his was present in court Tuesday for closing arguments.
Steinle’s family members have also been present for both opening and closing arguments, but neither family has made a statement to the media outside of court.
Jurors are scheduled to deliberate this afternoon and Wednesday morning, then will break for Thanksgiving if a verdict has not yet been reached.