No Trump Litmus Test for Jurors in Trial of Immigrant Cleared of Murder

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Prospective jurors’ positions on President Donald Trump’s immigration policies won’t play a role in whether they’re seated to decide if an immigrant acquitted of murder is guilty of illegal gun possession charges, a federal judge said in court Wednesday.

A portrait of Kate Steinle displayed at a memorial site on Pier 14 in San Francisco, Calif. (Paul Chinn /San Francisco Chronicle via AP, File)

“Jury selection will not be about Donald Trump,” U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria said.

The defendant, Jose Inez Garcia-Zarate, was accused of killing a 32-year-old woman on a San Francisco pier in 2015, but a state court jury cleared him of murder charges in 2017. Despite the acquittal, federal prosecutors filed new charges less than a week later, accusing Garcia-Zarate of two counts of illegal gun possession based on his status as a convicted felon and undocumented immigrant.

The shooting death of Kate Steinle became a rallying cry for supporters of tougher immigration enforcement, including then-presidential candidate Trump, who cited Steinle’s death during his 2016 campaign as reason to support building a border wall and fight against “sanctuary city” policies.

In court Wednesday, Garcia-Zarate’s lawyer Maria Belyi argued that Trump should be named in a prescreening question posed to potential jurors. Otherwise, jurors might not realize until after the trial starts that Trump had talked about the case, and some jurors might then realize they agree with the president’s position, she argued.

“So you’re worried about a Bay Area jury being tainted by a Trump person,” Chhabria asked.

Belyi replied that many Bay Area residents outside of San Francisco hold conservative views and agree with Trump’s immigration policies. She said her client should be permitted to question if a prospective juror “strongly supports the wall when that wall was somewhat synonymous with this case in the need to build the wall.”

Chhabria disagreed, noting that the push to build a border wall has nothing to do with whether Garcia-Zarate illegally possessed a firearm.

“Most people have very strong feelings about the president,” Chhabria said. “The point is not to get into a discussion of whether we like the president or don’t like the president. The point is to find out, one side or another, whether the rhetoric in this issue will affect people’s ability to be a fair juror in this case.”

Asking whether a juror supports building a border wall would be “out of bounds,” Chhabria said, adding he won’t hesitate to make lawyers sit down and stop questioning potential jurors if they cross the line.

Chhabria also inquired why federal prosecutors need Steinle’s father, Jim Steinle, to testify at trial. 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.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin Barry said Steinle’s father is “the only person who can say exactly where they were when the shots rang out, screaming and cries for help.”

“What does screaming and cries for help have to do with this?” Chhabria asked. “I don’t think it’s going to be disputed that there was screaming and a cry for help.”

Also on Wednesday, Belyi asked the judge to bar statements her client made to police shortly after his arrest as evidence at trial. The defense argued the statements are inadmissible because Garcia-Zarate’s arrest was “illegal” and police failed to properly read him his Miranda rights.

Garcia-Zarate’s lawyers argued in a 9-page brief that his arrest was warrantless, based on conflicting witness descriptions of a suspect, and that officers lacked adequate evidence to justify the arrest. Prosecutors countered that the arrest was based on “detailed descriptions” and photographs of the suspect from witnesses.

The defense further argued that a bungled Spanish translation led a San Francisco police officer to warn Garcia-Zarate that he had the right to “wait for silence,” rather than “remain silent.”  The defense also noted that Garcia-Zarate said “no” after being asked if he wanted to “have a conversation a little bit.”

Prosecutors countered that the translation of a suspect’s Miranda rights “need not be perfect” as long as the suspect understands. The government argued that Garcia-Zarate had 25 prior arrests in the U.S., and therefore likely understood he had a right to remain silent.

Belyi argued Wednesday that when Garcia-Zarate mentioned having an attorney during the interrogation, police understood that her client meant he wanted to speak to a lawyer but kept interrogating him anyway.

Chhabria said he didn’t view that exchange as particularly “helpful” to the defense’s argument in favor of suppressing Garcia-Zarate’s statements to police.

“I don’t see anything demonstrating that he wanted to end the interrogation,” Chhabria said.

The judge asked prosecutors to submit a full version of the transcript and a video of the interrogation to the court. He took arguments under submission and said he would issue a written ruling.

Last year, Chhabria denied the defense’s request to pursue evidence that the Trump administration vindictively prosecuted Garcia-Zarate on new federal charges after he was cleared of murder.

In August, a state appeals court overturned the sole conviction in Garcia-Zarate’s murder trial, an illegal gun possession charge, finding the judge failed to give the jury the option to acquit the suspect based on the theory that he only possessed the weapon for a moment.

Jury selection in the federal criminal case is scheduled to begin Jan. 13. The trial is scheduled to start Jan. 15.

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