SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Jurors acquitted the undocumented immigrant accused of the 2015 shooting death of a woman on a San Francisco pier of murder charges Thursday, convicting him only of being a felon in possession of a firearm.
After more than a week of deliberation, the six man-six women jury rejected charges of first- and second-degree murder, involuntary manslaughter, and assault with a semiautomatic pistol against Jose Ines Garcia-Zarate, 45, in the shooting death of Kate Steinle.
Garcia-Zarate faced 25 years to life in prison if convicted of murder. But the jury rejected all but the least serious charge against him, punishable by 16 months to 3 years in state prison. He already has spent more than 2 years in the county jail.
After the verdicts were read in the packed, silent courtroom, Superior Court Judge Samuel Feng told jurors they were free to talk to the dozens of reporters present, but none did.
Speaking outside the courtroom, lead defense attorney Matt Gonzalez offered condolences to the Steinle family.
Before trial, Judge Feng ordered attorneys to stay away from the political controversy over illegal immigration and sanctuary city laws. But outside the courtroom, Gonzalez got political, invoking the names of President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
“Let me just remind them that they themselves are under investigation by a special prosecutor in Washington, D.C., and they may themselves soon avail themselves of the presumption of innocence beyond a reasonable doubt standard,” Gonzalez said. “So I would ask them to reflect on that before they comment or disparage the results of this case."
Alex Bastian, a spokesman for the San Francisco district attorney, said “the verdict that came in today was not what we were hoping for,” but added that “this really is about the Steinle family. They've shown incredible resolve during this whole process and our hearts go out to them.”
With no witnesses to the shooting, the jury, which began deliberations last week, had to distill four weeks of circumstantial evidence.
Garcia-Zarate's attorney’s said that as a homeless person, their client naturally investigated an unusual object he found wrapped in a rag beneath his seat on Pier 14 on July 1, 2015. When Garcia-Zarate fumbled with what turned out to be a .40-caliber Sig Sauer handgun, stolen from an off-duty federal agent’s vehicle days before, the gun discharged, his attorneys said. And Gonzalez, chief attorney of the San Francisco Public Defenders Office, said the result was Steinle's accidental death.
Throughout trial, Gonzalez challenged the procedures police used to investigate the crime scene, and the police translator’s work during a late-night interrogation that produced contradictory statements from Garcia-Zarate, including what sounded like a confession.
Assistant District Attorney Diana Garcia called the theory that Garcia-Zarate happened upon the gun when he sat down on the pier “fiction.” Whether or not the jurors agreed on individual facts, the evidence supported a first-degree murder conviction, she said. She said during closing arguments that Garcia-Zarate was playing “his own secret game of Russian roulette.”
Prosecutors spent much of the trial laying out a case for second-degree murder: that Garcia-Zarate intentionally committed a dangerous act with conscious disregard for human life. Only in the last few days did the prosecution explore the possibility that Garcia-Zarate had found the gun elsewhere and carried it to the pier looking for a target.
San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi blasted the prosecution for overreaching with the first-degree murder charge.
“Mr. Garcia-Zarate is extremely relieved by today’s verdict,” Adachi said in a statement. “The facts of this case were largely uncontroverted: A gun was found on the pier and it accidentally discharged, ricocheting from a distance of nearly 80 feet. But the prosecution inexplicably charged an accident it as a first-degree murder. Despite the unfairly politicized atmosphere surrounding this case, jurors focused on the evidence, which was clear and convincing, and rendered a just verdict.”
Meanwhile, both Sessions and Trump blasted the verdict, with Sessions taking additional aim at San Francisco's sanctuary policies and Trump using the moment to tout his vision of a border wall.
Subscribe to Closing Arguments
Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.