SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — An undocumented immigrant cleared of murder in the death of Kate Steinle pleaded guilty Monday to the last set of charges pending against him related to a fatal 2015 pier shooting.
Jose Inez Garcia-Zarate has been held in jails and prison hospitals for more than six years following his arrest for the July 5, 2015, shooting death of Steinle at Pier 14 in San Francisco. Garcia-Zarate’s public defenders called the shooting accidental, and a state court jury acquitted him of murder in 2017. After the acquittal, federal prosecutors charged him with two counts of illegal gun possession.
Garcia-Zarate previously pleaded not guilty to the charges and was about to take the case to trial in January 2020, but his plea was rescinded after U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria ordered him to undergo a mental health evaluation and later found him unfit to stand trial.
On Monday, the judge concluded Garcia-Zarate has been restored competency after taking daily medication for schizophrenia, and he accepted the defendant's change of plea.
Looking thin and frail in an orange jumpsuit with a shaved head, the 51-year-old Mexican national confirmed he understands the charges against him and that he is waiving his right to a jury trial.
He pleaded guilty to one count of being a felon in possession of a firearm and one count of being an unauthorized immigrant in possession of a firearm. Each charge carries a maximum 10-year sentence. Because both counts stem from the same conduct, Garcia-Zarate cannot be sentenced to more than a decade in prison, according to the judge.
During a 2020 competency hearing, Garcia-Zarate tried to fire one of his lawyers, legendary San Francisco Bay Area attorney Tony Serra, who has represented members of the Black Panthers and Hell’s Angels.
A psychiatrist who evaluated Garcia-Zarate in 2020 stated the defendant believed his lawyer was taking bribes from police and working against him, a paranoid thought pattern indictive of schizophrenia. Garcia-Zarate was deemed unfit to stand trial and transferred to a U.S. Bureau of Prisons facility, where he was treated for schizophrenia and eventually restored to competency.
The defendant was close to reaching a plea deal this past August when his bizarre courtroom behavior derailed the process and led the judge to make him undergo another mental health evaluation.
A psychiatrist found Garcia-Zarate lost competency last year after being transferred to Santa Rita Jail in Alameda County, where he stopped receiving his medication. An independent monitor was appointed to oversee mental health care at Santa Rita Jail last month, resolving a lawsuit alleging inadequate care for inmates.
Judge Chhabria asked the U.S. Marshals Service to transfer Garcia-Zarate to a different jail where he was “more likely to receive consistent treatment for his psychiatric condition.” Garcia-Zarate was moved to Marin County Jail, where he's been taking medication daily, according to weekly reports sent to the judge. A psychiatrist told Chhabria last month that Garcia-Zarate had been restored to competency.
On Monday, the judge said he noticed a marked change in the defendant’s demeanor and cognition when measured against his past courtroom interactions.
“I can see a major difference with Mr. Garcia-Zarate now compared to some of the prior court appearances we have had,” Chhabria said. “It’s clear to me based on my own observations but more importantly the observations of [psychiatrist Paul] Elezando that Mr. Garcia-Zarate is competent to enter a guilty plea here today.”
During his 2017 murder trial for the pier shooting, Garcia-Zarate’s public defenders said the shooting was accidental and that a gun went off inadvertently after he found it wrapped in a rag beneath a bench. The bullet ricocheted off a concrete walkway before hitting Steinle in the back. Steinle died in her father’s arms.
Steinle’s death became a rallying cry for supporters of tougher immigration enforcement, including then-presidential candidate Donald Trump, who cited the young woman’s death during his 2016 Republican National Convention speech.
Less than a week after the murder acquittal in 2017, prosecutors filed federal gun possession charges against Garcia-Zarate.
Steinle’s family sued the city and federal government in May 2016, blaming her death on the sheriff’s department’s refusal to notify ICE before releasing her suspected killer for a dismissed marijuana possession charge and a federal officer’s failure to secure a gun used in the shooting.
In 2019, a Ninth Circuit panel found the city could not be held liable for a policy that prevented sheriff’s deputies from helping federal officers detain undocumented immigrants being released from jail. This past August, the appeals court separately held the U.S. government was not legally responsible for a federal ranger’s stolen gun that was used in the shooting.
Garcia-Zarate’s court-appointed lawyer Mike Hinckley deferred comment to his co-counsel, Serra, who did not immediately respond to an email and phone call requesting comment.
Garcia-Zarate is scheduled to be sentenced on June 6.
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