Immigrant Cleared in Pier Shooting Tries to Fire Lawyer in Competency Hearing

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — An undocumented immigrant cleared of murder in the 2015 shooting death of a woman on a San Francisco pier rejected legal advice, tried to fire his attorney and made incoherent outbursts during a hearing on his competency to stand trial on federal gun possession charges Friday.

A portrait of Kate Steinle displayed at a memorial site on Pier 14 in San Francisco, Calif.(Paul Chinn /San Francisco Chronicle via AP, File)

“He told me he wants a different lawyer. He wants me out,” defense lawyer Tony Serra said after consulting with his client, Jose Garcia-Zarate, during a break in the video conference hearing.

Despite that directive, U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria ordered Serra to continue representing the defendant, saying he would address that issue during a sealed proceeding later in the day.

Just as he did at a hearing last month, Garcia-Zarate pleaded with the court to sentence him or deport him so he can get out of county jail. The Mexican immigrant has been in jail since July 2015 when he was accused of murder in the shooting death of Kate Steinle on a San Francisco pier.

“I’m tired of being here,” Garcia-Zarate said through a Spanish interpreter. “I want to receive my sentence, be deported from the U.S. or be sent to prison.”

Chhabria told the defendant he cannot plead guilty until he is found competent.

Garcia-Zarate insisted on testifying despite his lawyer advising him against it. The testimony was heard in the closed proceedings.

During a break between witnesses, Garcia-Zarate also made incoherent outbursts. A Spanish interpreter said he could not translate the “illogical statements.”

Days before Garcia-Zarate’s federal trial was set to begin this past January, Chhabria raised questions about the defendant’s competence and ordered him to undergo a psychiatric evaluation.

Two mental health professionals separately evaluated Garcia-Zarate and found him unfit to stand trial. They recommended he undergo treatment at a medical facility where he might be forced to take medication but would also have access to group therapy and educational resources that could help him understand court procedures and the charges filed against him.

Paul M. Elizondo III, a court-appointed psychiatrist, and Samantha Shelton, a clinical psychologist who works for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, both concluded Garcia-Zarate suffers from schizophrenia. Symptoms of the disorder include delusions, visual and auditory hallucinations and disorganized speech and behavior.

Shelton, who evaluated Garcia-Zarate between March and July during his stay at the federal Metropolitan Detention Center in Los Angeles, described the defendant’s speech as “grossly disorganized and significantly off-topic.”

“He was unable to grasp the actual alleged charges against him,” Shelton said.

Elizondo, who interviewed Garcia-Zarate twice in January, said the defendant became paranoid and suggested the psychiatrist had ulterior motives for interviewing him. Garcia-Zarate also shared with the psychiatrist a theory that his lawyer, Serra, was taking bribes from police and working against him.

“My opinion is his psychotic symptoms associated with schizophrenia that interfere with his ability to stand trial are true,” Elizondo said. “My opinion is that he can be restored with consistent adherence to antipsychotic medication.”

Serra, an 85-year-old local legend who has represented members of the Black Panthers and Hell’s Angels, questioned both witnesses on why they think treatment will cure Garcia-Zarate when he has a history of not taking his medication.

Garcia-Zarate has displayed symptoms of schizophrenia since at least 1988, according to medical records reviewed by Shelton. He also has a history of not taking prescribed medication.

“What makes you think it will change now,” Serra asked. “What’s different now from all these years where he has failed to obey and take his medicine?”

Elizondo replied that Garcia-Zarate may have to be forced to take medication over his objections.

“You can tie him up and inject him with a hypodermic needle,” Serra said facetiously.

Noting that Garcia-Zarate was never monitored for an extended period of time to make sure he took his medicine, Shelton recommended he be sent to federal prison designed like a medical facility to undergo treatment.

“It’s modeled under more of a hospital model, so it has psychiatry staff, psychology staff, specialists who are assigned to a cohort of inmates,” Shelton said. “They work very closely with them to ensure medication compliance. If it is reported they are not taking medication, they meet with the individual, counsel them, find out what the issues are. They do have the ability to force-medicate if needed.”

Even if his client is restored to competency, Serra asked how Garcia-Zarate could ever assist in his own defense if psychotic symptoms cause him to lose all memory of events took place in July 2015, which form the basis of charges against him.

In treating hundreds of patients with psychotic symptoms over the last decade, Elizondo said he found about half of them regained their memories after medication suppressed or lessened their symptoms.

But the psychiatrist added that memory recovery is not “absolutely necessary” for one to adequately assist in their own legal defense.

“The necessary components are ability to engage in the moment with limited psychotic symptoms,” Elizondo said.

After that testimony concluded, Chhabria asked Garcia-Zarate if he wanted to exercise his right to testify in the hearing.

Garcia-Zarate was warned that his testimony could be used against him at trial if he puts on an insanity defense, raises mental health issues or makes statements at trial that contradict the testimony.

Despite his defense lawyer’s advice that he stay silent, Garcia-Zarate opted to testify.

Chhabria closed the virtual courtroom to the public to ensure no sensitive or private information was revealed. A transcript of the testimony will be released after it is reviewed for potential redactions, Chhabria said.

In an emailed statement sent Monday after the hearing, Serra said he still represents Garcia-Zarate.

“When he returns from the hospital, the issue of my representation will be decided,” Serra said.

Judge Chhabria issued a 3-page ruling on Monday finding Garcia-Zarate not competent and requiring him to undergo treatment at a federal facility. The judge ordered staff at the facility treating Garcia-Zarate to update the court in four months on “the likelihood that defendant will attain the capacity to permit the proceedings to go forward in the foreseeable future.”

In 2017, a state court jury acquitted Garcia Zarate of murder charges in the July 1, 2015 shooting death of 32-year-old Kate Steinle on a San Francisco pier.

Garcia-Zarate’s public defenders said the shooting was accidental, that the gun went off unintentionally 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’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, prosecutors filed federal gun possession charges against Garcia-Zarate.

Serra argued in 2018 that the prosecution was politically motivated, but Chhabria refused to let the defense team pursue a vindictive prosecution theory due to a lack of evidence.

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