National News

Prosecutor: Kate Steinle's death was 'not an accident'

Posted November 15, 2017 5:56 p.m. EST
Updated November 20, 2017 5:57 p.m. EST

— Jose Ines Garcia Zarate was "playing his own secret version of Russian roulette" when he fired into an unsuspecting crowd and killed Kate Steinle on a San Francisco Pier two years ago, the prosecution told a jury on Monday.

Garcia Zarate, 45, a Mexican citizen and undocumented immigrant, had time to think about his actions as he sat in a chair on San Francisco's Pier 14 for 23 minutes on July 2015, lead prosecutor Diana Garcia said during closing arguments in his trial. Instead, Garcia Zarate pulled out the concealed .40-caliber Sig Sauer and "pointed it at people and pulled the trigger," fatally striking 32-year-old Steinle, the prosecutor said.

Then he ditched the weapon and ran, the prosecutor said. Steinle's death was "not an accident," Garcia argued.

"Kate Steinle was wiped off the earth" because of the defendant, the prosecutor said. "He knew firing the gun would be dangerous to human lives."

"The gun gave him power; it was his secret. He wanted to fire the gun," the prosecutor continued.

Garcia Zarate's attorneys are expected to wrap up their closing arguments later on Monday. The trial began nearly a month ago.

The 2015 fatal shooting, which was captured on video, drew national attention -- in part because Garcia Zarate had been deported from the United States five times.

Garcia Zarate has been charged with second-degree murder. But jurors will be allowed to consider first-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter verdicts, according to Alex Bastian, spokesman for the district attorney.

Jurors will be asked to evaluate two competing narratives. It will be up to them to decide whether Garcia Zarate shot Steinle unintentionally or committed murder.

Prosecutors said Garcia Zarate immediately tried to cover his tracks by throwing his gun into the San Francisco Bay and fleeing the scene. And a police interrogation would help prove his guilt, Garcia has said.

But defense lawyers say the evidence points to an accidental shooting, especially since the bullet ricocheted off the ground before striking Steinle nearly 80 feet away. They contend Garcia Zarate found the gun wrapped in a T-shirt or cloth under his seat on the pier and that it went off by accident, seconds after the discovery. (Authorities said the gun had been stolen from an off-duty Bureau of Land Management agent's car four days earlier.)

As for rushing away from the scene, it can be chalked up to nervousness, the defense contends. And any apparent confession to police stems from either confusion or problems with an officer's Spanish translation.

"We think we've covered a lot of ground. We think this jury has been very attentive," said Matt Gonzalez, the attorney and public defender for Garcia Zarate. The lack of an apparent motive may also help the defense.

The prosecution has repeatedly argued that the .40 caliber Sig Sauer, would need a firm pull of the trigger to go off. An unintentional discharge, prosecution experts testified, would be unlikely.

The defense has argued that the Sig Sauer is prone to accidental discharges, and called its own forensic firearms expert, who testified that the facts of the shooting point to an accidental discharge.

A case at the heart of the sanctuary cities debate

Steinle's death stirred an already heated debate over immigration.

Before the shooting, officials in San Francisco, a so-called sanctuary city, had released Garcia Zarate from custody instead of turning him over to immigration authorities. Freya Horne, chief legal counsel to the San Francisco County Sheriff, said in a 2015 interview that he was let go because there was no legal cause to detain the suspect.

Steinle's family filed a lawsuit in 2016 alleging that San Francisco and its former sheriff were partly to blame for Steinle's death, because officials never notified Immigration and Customs Enforcement when Garcia Zarate was released from a local jail in April 2015. City officials have said they're not liable for a former inmate's actions. A federal judge dismissed the family's claims against San Francisco and former Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi earlier this year.

The case also has become a rallying cry for President Donald Trump and GOP politicians, who have invoked Steinle's name in decrying sanctuary cities and promoting the construction of a border wall.

In June, the House of Representatives passed "Kate's law," a measure named for the victim that would increase maximum prison penalties for immigrants caught repeatedly entering the United States illegally. But it's unlikely to have enough votes to pass the Senate, which struggled with Kate's Law last year.

'Dad, help me'

Steinle took a stroll with her father and a friend on the evening of July 1, 2015, when the bullet struck her in the back and ruptured a major artery. Steinle's last words were "Dad, help me. Help me," according to the prosecutor.

Steinle's family has been present for part of the trial. James Steinle testified about the "loud" solo shot that rang out on the pier that killed his daughter.

"I couldn't figure out what happened," he said to the jury.

"I gave her mouth to mouth. And waited for the paramedics to show up and asked people to call 911."

Kate Steinle died a short time later at the hospital.

Garcia Zarate was arrested a short distance from the scene after a police officer noticed he matched the description of the suspect.

Garcia Zarate was formerly known as Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, one of several aliases he is known to have used. CNN and other media outlets previously identified him as Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez.

Questions about integrity of translation

One of the key pieces of evidence included a recorded police interview with a Spanish translator present. Garcia Zarate gave conflicting statements but eventually acknowledged firing the shot.

"What were you aiming at?" the detective asked.

"A sea lion," Garcia answers in Spanish.

But the tape reveals that he also told police that he stepped on the gun, causing it to fire. "I grabbed it and tossed it," he said referring to the weapon being thrown into the water.

Prosecutors argued his assertion is not credible.

But the defense says the interview is problematic due to translation errors.

In a printed translation of the interview, a police detective asked, "Did you pull the trigger?" Garcia Zarate answered, "Yes."

But according to the defense, the word "trigger" (or "gatillo" in Spanish) was never used. Instead, they say Garcia Zarate was asked, "Did you fire?" Gonzales contends it's an important distinction since he argues Garcia Zarate didn't intentionally pull the trigger.

"The people's entire theory of the case from the beginning has been he pulled the trigger, it takes a human finger," Gonzales told reporters.

If jurors were to believe that Garcia Zarate never confessed to actually pulling the trigger, the defense hopes they may be more inclined to decide the shooting was an accident, acquitting him of murder.

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Kate Steinle's name in the headline.