SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A federal judge on Wednesday questioned whether an immigrant acquitted of murder but facing federal gun-possession charges is competent to stand trial, one week before the trial is slated to begin.
The issue was raised during a three-hour pretrial hearing for Jose Inez Garcia-Zarate, an undocumented immigrant acquitted of murder by a state court jury in the 2015 shooting death of Kate Steinle on a San Francisco pier. Garcia-Zarate now faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted on two federal charges of illegal gun possession.
Federal prosecutors want to include an explosive statement Garcia-Zarate made during an arraignment hearing on Nov. 5, 2019. At that hearing, Garcia-Zarate was asked if he understood the nature of two illegal gun possession charges against him, based on his dual status as a felon and unauthorized immigrant.
Trying to explain his confusion about the charges, Garcia-Zarate answered, "It's saying that it's just one charge – one charge, it being illegal to have a weapon in my pants, the one that I had that day at Embarcadero, in my pants pocket."
U.S. prosecutor Kevin Barry argued that statement is essentially an admission of guilt, one the jury has a right to hear.
U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria disagreed, noting Garcia-Zarate has a history of making nonsensical statements in police interrogations and in a 2015 interview with ABC7 News. Chhabria said it seems more likely the defendant was describing the government's accusations against him, not admitting he put a gun in his pocket.
Barry had a different theory.
"The reason he said it was in his pants pocket is because it was in his pants pocket," the prosecutor insisted.
Garcia-Zarate has maintained he found the gun wrapped in a rag under a bench on the Embarcadero before he picked it up and it accidentally went off, hitting and fatally wounding Steinle.
Had Garcia-Zarate admitted in court that he put the gun in his pocket, Chhabria asked if that would raise concerns about defendant's competency to stand trial.
Barry argued it does not show incompetence, noting that "people make mistakes all the time."
The judge then asked Garcia-Zarate's lawyer, Tony Serra, if the court should be concerned about his client's competency.
Serra, a local legend who has defended members of the Black Panthers and Hells Angels, insisted his client is fit to assist in his own defense.
"He doesn't have a big vocabulary and asks simple short questions, but he is cooperative, and I don't see him as incompetent," Serra said.
When asked if Chhabria could speak with Garcia-Zarate privately to determine if he is fit to stand trial, Serra objected. He said that could force his client to "go away potentially forever" until psychologists certify that he is restored to competency.
"Here there's going to be an end to whatever occurs," Serra said of the trial. "He'll go back to Mexico, but there will be an end to it. Someday he'll see freedom. Not so if you're declared incompetent."
Chhabria ordered Garcia-Zarate to appear in court Thursday morning for a discussion regarding "his understanding of the nature of the charges against him and his ability to assist in his defense." The judge also ruled that a mental health professional must examine Garcia-Zarate at the Santa Rita Jail on Friday.
Also on Wednesday, Chhabria settled several other disputes on what evidence should be allowed at trial. Some decisions were made in a ruling issued Tuesday night, including the judge's decision to exclude testimony from Kate Steinle's father, James Steinle.
The elder Steinle delivered emotional testimony at a state court trial in 2017, choking back tears as he described how his daughter collapsed in his arms and said “Help me, dad” after she was shot. Kate Steinle was later declared dead at a nearby hospital.
Prosecutors had argued James Steinle's testimony was necessary to authenticate photographs and identify where he and his daughter were located during the shooting.
Chhabria found details of Steinle's death are "barely relevant to the possession charges, particularly since the government does not contend that Garcia-Zarate intended to shoot her." The judge added it would be "unfairly prejudicial" to include any evidence beyond "the fact of her death."
The judge also excluded evidence of Garcia-Zarate's jailhouse interview with ABC7 News four days after the shooting on July 5, 2015. After reviewing video of the interview, Chhabria said it seems clear Garcia-Zarate did not understand the questions being asked of him.
Serra's co-counsel, Maria Belyi, said the judge rightly recognized that news reporters "were looking for a story rather than trying to get factual statements."
The judge denied the defense's motion to exclude evidence of gunshot residue found on Garcia-Zarate's right hand. Chhabria also ruled out evidence that the gun was a government-issued firearm stolen from a government vehicle three days before the shooting. Chhabria found such evidence was "not relevant and inadmissible."
Barry said prosecutors would have a witness from San Francisco's crime lab testify that "the only way a bullet can be shot from this gun is by pulling the trigger" and "how many pounds of pressure would be needed to pull the trigger in different modes."
Speaking after the hearing, Serra said he found Chhabria's decisions on admissible evidence to be "fair and legally sound." However, the veteran defense lawyer complained about Chhabria's prior decisions.
The judge previously rejected the defense's request to pursue a theory that President Donald Trump's administration directed the Justice Department to vindictively prosecute his client.
"I can never argue that Trump's bombastic diatribe about illegal immigrants underpins this case," Serra said.
Last month, Chhabria also forbade the defense from asking potential jurors if they support President Donald Trump's policies.
"I believe persons who favor Trump will favor guilt, but I won't be able to explore any of that," Serra said.
Jury selection is scheduled to start Friday, with opening arguments set for Jan. 15.