SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — An undocumented immigrant acquitted of murder in the 2015 shooting death of Kate Steinle was sentenced to time served by a federal judge for two counts of felony gun possession.
Jose Inez Garcia-Zarate has been in custody following his arrest for the July 1, 2015, shooting death of Steinle at Pier 14 in San Francisco. Steinle, who walking along the pier with her father, was shot with a bullet from a .40-caliber Sig Sauer handgun that had been stolen from an off-duty federal agent’s vehicle days before.
Garcia-Zarate’s public defenders said he had found the gun wrapped in a rag under a seat at the pier, and that it discharged when he picked it up. The bullet ricocheted off the pavement and hit Steinle, who died in her father’s arms.
U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria told Garcia-Zarate’s lawyers on Monday that there was “very little evidence to support that theory,” adding, “I think it was perhaps enough to create reasonable doubt or maybe the jury was furious at George Gascon for charging the defendant with first degree murder when it was maybe not appropriate, but I don't think you have proven your theory offered to the jury in the state court trial. But the point is not whether I should believe the defense theory.”
The question for sentencing, Chhabria said, was whether Garcia-Zarate was subjectively aware of the riskiness of his behavior. “Obviously there is a lot of evidence in the record that Mr. Garcia-Zarate was not aware of much at the time,” he said.
At the time of the shooting, Garcia-Zarate was homeless, having been released from a San Francisco county jail after a marijuana charge against him was dropped. He had already been deported five times to his birth country of Mexico and was facing a sixth removal proceeding for a parole violation in Texas, but San Francisco declined to hold him for immigration authorities under its sanctuary-city policy.
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 a state jury acquitted him of murder, prosecutors filed federal charges against Garcia-Zarate for being a felon and an unauthorized immigrant in possession of a firearm.
His trial was delayed in 2020 after Chhabria grew concerned that Garcia-Zarate, who suffers from schizophrenia, was too mentally ill to stand trial. After a competency hearing in October, Garcia-Zarate was found unfit and transferred to a U.S. Bureau of Prisons facility for treatment.
In March 2022, Chhabria concluded Garcia-Zarate has been restored competency after taking daily medication for schizophrenia, and he accepted the defendant’s guilty plea.
But Chhabria said Monday that he still could not determine whether Garcia-Zarate had the requisite mental state to justify grossly negligent behavior at the time of the shooting.
“I don't know what happened exactly but what I do know is there's a good chance that Mr. Garcia didn't understand what was happening that day because of his serious mental illness.” The judge discounted video from a police interrogation and a jailhouse interview from ABC7 where he confessed to the shooting.
“The interview is basically worth nothing because it appeared that Mr. Garcia-Zarate either didn't know that was going on or barely knew what was going on in that interview,” Chhabria said. “I don't know if I can rely on any aspect of that interrogation or the ABC interview.”
The judge also slammed the news interview as “garbage,” saying the reporter was “putting words in his mouth and trying to coax him to say incendiary things.”
“How ABC News got into that jail to conduct that interview of Mr. Garcia-Zarate is beyond my wildest imagination,” Chhabria added. “I hope there was an investigation into that.”
Turning to the defendant, Chhabria said, “The consequences of the crime matter. Regardless of what happened and what Mr. Garcia-Zarate did and his mental condition that day, he admits now when he is competent that he committed the crime of being a felon in possession of a firearm and there is a consequence to that and the consequence was horrible. When you commit a crime, consequences matter. You can't just say it was bad luck.”
Garcia-Zarate said he did not wish to speak before being sentenced, but his lawyer Mike Hinckley read a short statement that said, “He feels horrible about what happened and he's very sorry and apologizes.”
Chhabria said he believed it appropriate for Garcia-Zarate to be sentenced to time-served, a sentence federal prosecutors did not oppose, though they did disagree with the judge’s conclusion that the defendant was probably unaware of what he was doing.
“He was reckless. He was illegally possessing and playing with a firearm that day knowing that could cause some serious damage,” Assistant United States Attorney Eric Cheng said at Monday’s hearing.
Steinle’s family declined to participate in the hearing. “We understand this is a difficult time and why they wouldn't want to participate,” Cheng said.
Chhabria said he had to take into consideration the conditions of confinement Garcia-Zarate had been held in for the last seven years.
“He's been in county jails pretty much the whole time and even in normal circumstances the conditions in county jails are far more oppressive than many the Bureau of Prison’s federal facilities,” the judge said. “He has been sitting in a crowded jail with his serious mental health condition being untreated. And the last two years of this have been during the pandemic, and we all now how awful conditions are in the jail over the past two years and how awful they continue to be. We talk about Mr. Garcia-Zarate spending seven years in custody but given the neglect he suffered when thaws there I think we have to think of it as much more harsh.”
Garcia-Zarate’s lawyers wanted him to be sentenced to no more than six-years so he could get some time-served credit for his case in Texas, where he will now be transferred for violating the terms of his supervised release all those years ago.
in an interview after the hearing, attorney Tony Serra said the sentence seemed to be a compromise. “[Chhabria] went both ways when he went with credit for time served. It might have turned out that more of his time would apply to the Texas case, and the prospect of getting credit in Texas for the overage would be enhanced. Now it impairs our ability to have him get credit for time-served in Texas.”
Serra said Garcia-Zarate will probably serve about two years in Texas.
Chhabria said he was confident Garcia-Zarate will then be deported to Mexico, and warned him not to try to return to this United States.
“If you return to this country again and you are back in front of me, I will not spare you in any way,” he said. “Let this be your last warning. Do not return to this country.”
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