SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The trial of an undocumented immigrant accused of killing a woman walking along the San Francisco waterfront begins Monday, and will likely be closely watched as the Trump administration continues its double-down against sanctuary cities like the city by the bay.
Jurors will hear from defense lawyers who acknowledge Jose Ines Garcia Zarate killed Kate Steinle, but say the shooting was accidental. Zarate’s team says their client found a gun wrapped in a shirt under a bench on Pier 14. As he unwrapped the shirt, the .40-caliber handgun went off and the bullet hit Steinle in the heart as she walked with her father.
Zarate, now 45 years old, was homeless, an undocumented immigrant and a convicted felon. He had been using the name Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez when he was arraigned, but now goes by his birth name.
Charged with second-degree murder, Zarate faces 15 years to life in prison if the jury finds he fired at Steinle or other people on the pier, with 25 years tacked on for the lethal use of a gun. If jurors determine that he was grossly negligent but did not mean to kill anyone, he may serve two to four years for involuntary manslaughter, and may be acquitted if the jury finds the shooting was entirely accidental.
Then-candidate Donald Trump made hay of the case during his campaign, arguing that Steinle’s death was the consequence of sanctuary city laws and weak immigration enforcement. Zarate, a Mexican citizen, has been deported five times.
His last border crossing resulted in a felony re-entry conviction and time in federal prison. He was released in March 2015 and sent to San Francisco. Prosecutors there decided not to pursue an outstanding marijuana charge from decades earlier, but the then-Sheriff, Ross Mirkarimi, did not share the news of his release with federal immigration officials. As a sanctuary city, immigration agents are only notified of an inmate release if agents have an arrest warrant or the individual has a serious criminal record.
Months later, on July 1, 2015, he held the gun that shot Steinle.
During jury selection, lawyers probed the personal and professional backgrounds of potential panelists. A questionnaire asked if they had ever been homeless, how familiar they are with firearms and whether they possess any strong beliefs about immigration policy and sanctuary cities.
But San Francisco Superior Court Judge Samuel Feng has made hot-button election issues off-limits at trial. He told jurors not to consider sanctuary cities, immigration or gun control in their deliberations.
The trial is expected to last at least four weeks.