Updates to our Terms of Use

We are updating our Terms of Use. Please carefully review the updated Terms before proceeding to our website.

Tuesday, July 23, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Officer Says Steinle Killing Could Have Been an Accident

A police investigator who analyzed the scene of Kate Steinle's shooting death on San Francisco’s Pier 14 testified for most of the day Monday in the murder trial of Jose Ines Garcia-Zarate.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — A police investigator who analyzed the scene of Kate Steinle's shooting death on San Francisco’s Pier 14 testified for most of the day Monday in the murder trial of Jose Ines Garcia-Zarate.

The most telling statement Monday, for the defense, may have been police crime scene investigator John Evans’ acknowledgment that he was aware that if a handgun falls from high enough it can accidentally fire, and that he could not rule that out in this case.

Garcia-Zarate, 45, is charged with second-degree murder and gun charges for shooting 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. Superior Court Judge Samuel Feng has said he will not allow those issues to intrude on the trial.

Under questioning from Assistant District Attorney Diana Garcia, recently retired investigator Evans described what he did at Pier 14 several days after the shooting.

Evans said that pictures of him using a laser pointer on the pier show how he reconstructed the likely path of the bullet that took Kate Steinle’s life. Referring to a police diagram, he said the chair where Garcia-Zarate was probably sitting lined up with a divot in the concrete of the pier's walkway and the area where Steinle was fatally struck.

“I determined that there was an unobstructed straight line between the two points” he said.

He called the ricochet off the pier's concrete walkway a “skip shot” that resulted from pulling the trigger too soon, either from inexperience or being rushed.

He said that in his decades of experience as an investigator and firearms instructor he had never seen a handgun fire without a finger on the trigger. The accidental or negligent discharges he had examined all occurred when a person unintentionally pulled the trigger, such as when removing or replacing a firearm in a holster. He said he had only heard about, but not seen, a discharge from a gun that had fallen.

“A human being pointed a firearm in the direction of Ms. Steinle and pulled the trigger, killing Ms. Steinle,” he said.

Public Defender Matt Gonzalez called Evans’s work with the laser pointer “junk science.”

Gonzalez said the diagram Evans used was not drawn to scale and that the exact positions of neither the shooter nor Kate Steinle are known.

The only known fixed point was the divot caused by the bullet’s ricochet, he said. He derided Evans’ use of term “vector analysis,” calling it “wild speculation” and implying that it was so different from traditional forensic trajectory analysis as to be useless.

Gonzalez and Evans batted around competing interpretations of what constitutes a straight line. Asked whether the walkway may have altered the path of the bullet, Evans said that viewed from above it would have been a straight line, but when viewed from the side it would have been a very elongated and very shallow V.

“OK, an elongated V is not a straight line,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez, who plans to put his own ballistics expert on the stand, asked if something other than a finger can cause a handgun to discharge.

What Gonzalez calls an accidental discharge, Evans calls a negligent discharge: a distinction that could rule out the most serious charge against Garcia-Zarate, second-degree murder.

Evans acknowledged that he had heard of instances of a gun falling from high enough that landing on its backstrap caused it to fire, and that he could not rule out an accident.

In other testimony Monday, a woman said she had been walking on the waterfront when she heard a bang. Then she saw and heard a splash, and saw a man pull a gray hood over his head and run away.

A police officer who saw Garcia-Zarate soon after his arrest said the suspect was wearing a black T-shirt, black jacket with a gray hood, two pairs of jeans and one sock, while one shoe had laces and the other did not.

The trial is expected to last four weeks.

Categories / Criminal, Trials

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.