SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The trial of an immigrant cleared of murder in a 2015 shooting on a San Francisco pier and now faces federal gun possession charges will be delayed pending a psychiatrist's evaluation of his fitness to stand trial, a federal judge said Friday.
After holding a closed-door, one-on-one dialogue with Jose Garcia Zarate, who was cleared of murder in the 2015 shooting death of Kate Steinle, U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria decided further review is needed.
"What I know for sure now is that I cannot go forward with this trial while there is this doubt hanging over us about Mr. Garcia-Zarate's competency," Chhabria said.
Preliminary jury selection based on written questionnaires began Friday. Opening arguments were set to start Jan. 15.
A Spanish-speaking mental health professional is scheduled to interview Garcia-Zarate at Santa Rita Jail in Alameda County on Monday and will produce a competency report later in the week. If any doubts are raised about the defendant's fitness to stand trial, an evidentiary hearing must take place. That would delay the trial indefinitely.
"If there is a bona fide doubt about the defendant's competency, a full-blown evidentiary hearing regarding his competency is required by law," Chhabria said.
Questions were first raised about Garcia-Zarate's competency at a pretrial hearing Wednesday, when prosecutors fought to admit evidence of a statement Garcia-Zarate made at a November arraignment hearing. At that hearing, Garcia-Zarate said a gun was in his pants pocket, something prosecutors alleged during his murder trial.
Chhabria found it more likely Garcia-Zarate was parroting accusations against him, rather than admitting he put the gun in his pocket. That debate led the judge to question Garcia-Zarate's fitness to stand trial based on that and other prior statements that appeared to be nonsensical or stem from confusion.
The judge issued a 2-page order Friday explaining his reasons for raising the competency issue. Chhabria said he watched videos of Garcia-Zarate's "sometimes nonsensical" answers during a police interrogation and ABC7 News interview, both from July 2015. The judge reported that his discussion with the defendant Friday morning did not assuage his concerns, and it appears Garcia-Zarate "may not understand the charges against him, and it’s possible that he’s not currently taking any medication for his apparent mental illness."
Garcia-Zarate faces up to 20 years in prison for two counts of illegal gun possession based on his dual status as a convicted felon and undocumented immigrant.
Speaking outside the courtroom, Garcia-Zarate's lawyer Tony Serra said he does not deem it unfair for the judge to question his client's competency. However, he also bristled at the prospect of his client being declared incompetent.
"If a person is declared incompetent, criminal proceedings are suspended and you are sent to a medical facility until you regain competency," Serra said. "You can spend the rest of your life there."
Also on Friday, Chhabria said he was surprised at how familiar potential jurors were with the case based on their written answers to a 10-page questionnaire. Some prospective jurors knew precise details about the Steinle shooting and Garcia-Zarate's 2017 murder trial, including specifics on the defense's arguments and strategy during the trial.
Serra said he sees the widespread publicity as "going both ways." Some prospective jurors volunteered their views on guns, immigration and President Donald Trump's policies, despite Chhabria's prior decision barring lawyers from naming Trump or asking about him during jury selection.
At least one prospective juror expressed a desire to "get rid of Trump," according to Serra.
The veteran defense lawyer, who has represented members of the Black Panthers and Hells Angels, previously told Courthouse News that he believes "persons who favor Trump will favor guilt" in this trial.
Questions now linger as to whether the current pool of jurors can move forward if the trial is postponed beyond next week. The judge said he would speak with the jury office regarding "how long we can hang on to this jury pool."
A state court jury acquitted Garrcia-Zarate of murder charges in 2017. The seven-time felon has maintained he found the gun wrapped in a rag under a bench on the Embarcadero before he picked it up and it accidentally went off, hitting and fatally wounding Steinle on July 1, 2015.
Serra has stated in court that the defense plans to argue Garcia-Zarate's possession of the gun was "fleeting" and "transitory."
According to proposed jury instructions drafted by the judge, the government must prove that Garcia-Zarate knowingly possessed the firearm in order for jurors to find him guilty.
"An act is done knowingly if a person is aware of the act and does it voluntarily," the proposed instruction states. "An act is not done knowingly if done through ignorance, mistake, or accident. The government is not required to prove that the defendant knew that possession of a firearm was unlawful – only that he consciously possessed what he knew to be a firearm and ammunition."
The gun used in the shooting was stolen from a federal ranger's vehicle three and a half days before the tragic event. Earlier this week, a federal judge ruled the U.S. government could not be held liable for a ranger leaving the loaded unsecured pistol in a backpack in his car, citing a lack of direct connection between the car burglary and shooting.
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