Tuesday, December 6, 2022 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Immigrant in San Francisco Pier Shooting Challenges Competency Finding

An undocumented Mexican immigrant cleared of murder in the 2015 shooting death of Kate Steinle on a San Francisco pier will challenge two doctors’ findings that he is not competent to stand trial on federal gun possession charges.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — An undocumented Mexican immigrant cleared of murder in the 2015 shooting death of Kate Steinle on a San Francisco pier will challenge two doctors’ findings that he is not competent to stand trial on federal gun possession charges.

In this 2015 photo, Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, right, is led into the courtroom by San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi, left, and Assistant District Attorney Diana Garciaor, center, for his arraignment at the Hall of Justice in San Francisco. (Michael Macor/San Francisco Chronicle via AP, Pool, File)

Speaking from Alameda County’s Santa Rita Jail during a remote status hearing Tuesday, Jose Garcia Zarate said he has grown weary of languishing in jail for five years, first awaiting the outcome of a state court murder trial and then facing federal gun possession charges.

“I think it’s time for me to go to prison or be deported,” Garcia Zarate said through a Spanish interpreter Tuesday.

A federal trial was scheduled to start this past January before U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria raised questions about Garcia Zarate’s competence and ordered him to undergo a psychiatric evaluation.

Two doctors evaluated the defendant and found him unfit to stand trial, meaning Garcia Zarate must be sent to a U.S. Bureau of Prisons treatment facility until he is declared competent.

Garcia Zarate’s lawyer, Tony Serra, said his client wants to challenge that finding so he can move on with his life, whether that means serving time in prison or being deported. He faces a maximum 20 years in prison if convicted on two charges of being a felon in possession of a firearm and being an unauthorized alien in possession of a firearm.

Serra, an 85-year-old local legend who has defended members of the Black Panthers and Hells Angels, said Garcia Zarate wants an evidentiary hearing on the competency finding as soon as practical to get his client out of limbo.

“Certainly, we do not want Mr. Garcia Zarate to be in limbo longer than necessary,” Chhabria said on Tuesday. “The fastest way to get him out of limbo is to do the evidentiary hearing by Zoom.”

When Chhabria asked if either side intended to call Garcia Zarate as a witness, which both sides declined, the defendant unexpectedly chimed in, lamenting his protracted time in jail.

“I think it’s been too long,” Garcia Zarate said through an interpreter. “It’s been four and a half years in county, and none of this has resolved anything.”

Chhabria suggested the defendant could talk to his lawyers about pleading guilty to resolve the case, but Serra quickly observed that his client cannot enter a plea until he is found competent.

“It’s true that the standard for deciding whether somebody is competent to stand trial is the same as the standard as to whether someone is competent to plead guilty,” Chhabria said.

Chhabria scheduled a competency hearing to be conducted by Zoom video conference on Oct. 16.

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 Garcia-Zarate found it wrapped in a rag beneath a bench. The bullet ricocheted off the 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 that the prosecution was politically motivated, but Chhabria refused to let the defense team pursue a vindictive prosecution theory.

The .40-caliber handgun used in Steinle’s shooting had been stolen from an off-duty U.S. Bureau of Land Management ranger’s vehicle in San Francisco several days before the shooting took place.

Steinle’s family sued the federal government for negligence. They also sued the city of San Francisco for failing to turn Garcia Zarate over to ICE after the seven-time felon was sent to San Francisco to face marijuana possession charges and released from county jail.

In 2019, the Ninth Circuit ruled the city could not be held liable for Steinle’s death, finding the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department had no legal duty to help immigration agents detain and deport Garcia Zarate.

This past January, a federal judge ruled the U.S. Bureau of Land Management also could not be held liable for Steinle’s death, finding a lack of direct connection between a car burglary where the ranger’s gun was stolen and the shooting that took place three days later and half a mile away.

An appeal of that decision is pending in the Ninth Circuit.

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.