SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Riveting testimony from Kate Steinle’s father Monday ended the first day of trial for the man charged with her murder. James Steinle testified after the opening statements in the trial of Jose Ines Garcia-Zarate, whose attorneys call it an accidental shooting.
Garcia-Zarate, 45, is charged with second-degree murder and several gun charges for fatally shooting Kate Steinle as she walked with her father on July 1, 2015. If convicted, he faces up to 40 years in prison.
Steinle’s death became a lightning rod for debate over sanctuary city laws and immigration enforcement, because Garcia-Zarate, a Mexican citizen, had been deported five times.
In Superior Court Judge Samuel Feng’s hushed courtroom, James Steinle recalled the steps that he and Kate and a family friend took in the hours leading up to her death. On that day they walked along the waterfront, ending up at Pier 14.
The prosecutor projected selfies that Kate Steinle had taken just minutes before she was shot at age 32.
“Kate liked to take selfies,” James Steinle said.
Asked how often they talked, he choked up, paused, and said faintly, “Often.”
The trio strolled out onto Pier 14 around 6:20 p.m., and “watched birds, boats, things you usually do on the pier,” Steinle said. Then there was a loud noise, “a pop or a bang,” and Kate fell to the ground.
“I instinctively looked over at Kate. She had her arms out and said, ‘Help me, Dad.’”
Time blurred, he said; his daughter could not talk and her eyes were closed. He tried to revive her until paramedics came.
Assistant District Attorney Diana Garcia said Kate Steinle had spoken her last words. A bullet had pierced her lower back and her aorta.
“She was taken to San Francisco General Hospital and there was nothing they could do. She was 32 years old,” Garcia said.
Homeless and already a felon, Garcia-Zarate was in the United States illegally. He used the name Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez when he was arraigned, but now goes by his birth name.
He concedes that he caused the gun to discharge, but his attorneys say he was simply investigating something under his seat on the pier when he came across a gun wrapped up in a shirt. They call Steinle’s an accidental shooting caused by a hair-trigger gun that lacks a traditional safety mechanism.
The SIG Sauer P239 is not defective, they say, but is designed as a backup weapon that must be ready to fire immediately.
“This gun is inherently dangerous in the hands of someone who has not been properly trained,” said Garcia-Zarate’s attorney Matt Gonzalez.
Garcia-Zarate’s behavior that day was perfectly normal for a homeless man scavenging, the attorney said.
Garcia-Zarate told police that he’d never fired a gun before and was startled when the gun fired. Garcia-Zarate then kicked the weapon off the pier into the bay.
Gonzalez said Garcia-Zarate had been hanging around the Embarcadero for weeks, not causing any trouble. He was not begging or stealing, but did take the occasional handout. When Garcia-Zarate was arrested he had cracker crumbs and cigarette butts in his pockets.
“He’s the type of person who might investigate a discarded item,” Gonzalez said.
Prosecutor Garcia contested that version. He said that the gun, a divot in the concrete deck of the pier and Kate Steinle’s position all lined up in a way that shows he meant to shoot her or other people.
The prosecutor told jurors that the SIG Sauer gun, which had been stolen from the car of a ranger for the Bureau of Land Management, is a safe model that requires deliberate action to fire.
“The only way the gun will fire is if the trigger is pulled,” she said. “It’s not the kind of gun that’s going to go off accidentally.”
Complicating and adding fuel to the trial is the news revealed last week that the federal ranger whose stolen gun was used was promoted five months after Kate Steinle’s death, and President Donald Trump and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions have used the case to support their campaign against immigration and sanctuary cities.
Judge Feng, however, has made it clear that he will not allow those wider social issues into the trial, which is expected to last four weeks.