Jose Inez Garcia-Zarate, a Mexican national and convicted felon who previously had been deported from the United States five times, pled guilty Monday to two federal weapons offenses, according to U.S. Attorney Stephanie Hinds.
Garcia-Zarate shot and killed Kathryn “Kate” Steinle, a tourist, in 2015 on Pier 14 on San Francisco’s Embarcadero. The killing became part of a national conversation about immigration when Donald Trump used it support his campaign pitch for tougher immigration policies.
Garcia-Zarate’s case has had many twists and turns in both state and federal court.
He was first tried in a state court proceeding initiated by San Francisco’s District Attorney.
On November 30, 2017 he was convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm — a semi-automatic weapon — but was acquitted on homicide charges by a jury that accepted the defendant’s argument that the shooting resulted from an accidental discharge of a gun he found wrapped in cloth on the pier.
He was then indicted by a federal grand jury in December 2017 on federal weapons charges.
On appeal from his state law conviction, the state court of appeals reversed. However, federal proceedings were not affected by the state court ruling and they went forward upon Garcia-Zarate’s release from state court custody.
In 2020, on the eve of trial in federal court, U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria ordered that Garcia-Zarate be evaluated to determine whether he was “suffering from a mental disease or defect rendering him mentally incompetent to the extent that he is unable to understand the nature and consequences of the proceedings against him or to assist properly in his defense.”
On October 19, 2020, following evaluation by court-appointed psychiatrists, the judge determined Garcia-Zarate was not competent to stand trial. The judge found “that Garcia- Zarate lacks a rational understanding of the proceedings against him and is unable to consult with his lawyers in a meaningful fashion, such that he is not competent to stand trial.”
The doctors testified that Garcia-Zarate had schizophrenia.
Based on his own observation, the judge said:
“Garcia-Zarate’s speech and responses to questions were frequently off-topic or nonsensical, and he demonstrated no understanding of the charges against him.”
The judge noted that Garcia-Zarate had indicated that he wanted to plead guilty, but the judge also found that he was not competent to make that decision because “because he lacks sufficient mental capacity to waive his constitutional rights, make a reasoned choice among alternatives, and understand the nature and consequences of a guilty plea.”
The judge said that the doctors believed there was a possibility that Garcia Zarate would improve if he was treated with antipsychotic medication. He then ordered that Garcia-Zarate receive that treatment.
In June of 2021, the Bureau of Prisons informed the judge that “it had restored the defendant to competency.” However, on re-arraignment in August of 2021, the judge ordered a new competency evaluation because of concerns about whether Garcia-Zarate was competent and also whether or not he was taking his medication.
On February 16, 2022, the judge reported that after being restored to competency at the Bureau of Prisons facility, Garcia-Zarate had been transferred to Santa Rita Jail to be held pending trial.
However, Garcia-Zarate was not given his medications at that facility and was subsequently determined by the doctors to no longer be competent.
Garcia-Zarate was then moved to Marin County jail where he received his meds and was again restored to competency.
The court held a hearing Monday to consider Garcia-Zarate’s stated desire to change his plea.
At the hearing, Garcia-Zarate pled guilty to the two weapons counts.
Sentencing is scheduled for June 6, 2022 and Garcia-Zarate remains incarcerated pending the sentencing.
Each count bears a maximum of 10 years in prison with three years of supervised release.