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Kate Steinle: Victim of Deadly ‘Russian Roulette’ or a Tragic Accident?

5 minute read

There is little that is undisputed about the Kate Steinle case, beyond the crucial fact that she was killed on July 1, 2015, by a bullet that struck her on a picturesque San Francisco pier.

On Monday, lawyers started making their closing arguments in a murder case that became a flash point in the 2016 election, because the man accused of killing 32-year-old Steinle, Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, is an undocumented immigrant. On track for his sixth deportation, he was released by the local sheriff’s department in the weeks before the shooting, despite a federal request to detain him. The sheriff at the time has cited the city’s so-called sanctuary policy as the reason.

But Judge Samuel Feng, who has presided over the case at San Francisco’s Superior Court for several weeks, warned jurors on Monday that they must not be swayed by bias as they decide whether he is guilty of murder or involuntary manslaughter or neither, as well as other charges – and that includes disregarding feelings about immigration policy.

At issue is not whether local officials were correct to let the man go – or when Mexican nationals should be allowed to walk free in the United States – but what Garcia Zarate’s intentions were on the day that Steinle died. Much of the evidence presented in the case has been circumstantial and in closing arguments, the attorneys painted starkly different pictures of what that evidence added up to.

“It’s up to you and you alone,” Feng told the jurors. “You must decide what the facts are.”

Both sides agree that Garcia Zarate handled the gun that killed Steinle, which had been stolen from a federal agent’s car four days before the shooting. (The burglary is unsolved.) In her closing argument, Deputy District Attorney Diana Garcia held up the baggy black clothes Garcia Zarate was wearing on the day and showed how the .40-caliber Sig Sauer could fit in the pockets, arguing that he brought the gun to the busy tourist spot in order to execute a secret, power-tripping game of “Russian roulette.” She recalled witnesses who found him odd, including one woman who described him as laughing and watching passersby in what Garcia called a “target-rich environment.”

The prosecution suggested that he picked Steinle out as a random but intended victim, as the young woman stood with her father’s arm around her, before shooting in her direction and quickly leaving the scene. Garcia displayed a selfie Steinle had taken with her dad and a family friend. “A vibrant life was taken from us because of this man’s actions,” Garcia said, pointing at Garcia Zarate as Steinle’s family sat stoically in the front row of a stuffy courtroom known as Department 13. “He chose the moment,” she said.

Public defender Matt Gonzalez argued that “having pockets” was not sufficient evidence that his client was carrying the gun and repeated his account: that Garcia Zarate, who was homeless at the time, found the gun wrapped in a shirt or rag under a seat on the pier; accidentally caused it to discharge; and then, bewildered, threw the gun over the side of the pier and walked away. “He does not know the contents,” Gonzalez said, reimagining the scene. “It fires.” Video evidence showed vague images of figures moving around the spot where Garcia Zarate was sitting about a half hour before he arrived. Gonzalez questioned why his client would have a “desire to hurt someone he does not know.”

The defense repeatedly emphasized that the bullet had ricocheted off the ground before traveling nearly 80 feet to strike Steinle, while Garcia argued that novice shooters (or nervous ones) often drop the gun toward the ground as they shoot. The two sides debated the smaller details as well as the big ones, like whether the bullet traveled in a straight line and whether Garcia Zarate was really laughing as he swiveled round in a chair attached to the pier – or if the single witness who said so might have recalled his demeanor incorrectly.

Garcia Zarate himself did not speak on Monday, as he listened to a Spanish translation of the proceedings through a headset. He had given inconsistent testimony when initially questioned by police in a several-hour interview, saying at one point that he accidentally stepped on the gun and at another that he was firing at a seal.

In California, when jurors are presented with circumstantial evidence, and there is more than one reasonable inference that could be drawn from that evidence, they must give greater weight to an inference that suggests a person is innocent. While Garcia presented her version of events in a fairly succinct morning session, Judge Feng called an end to the day before Gonzalez could finish his methodical attempt to show that fact after fact could be interpreted in more than one way.

Gonzaelez is expected to conclude his closing statement Tuesday morning, after which the D.A.’s office will be given a opportunity for rebuttal. By the end of the day on Monday, immigration policy had not been mentioned. The only time when arguments leaned toward the political was when Gonzalez spoke about the prevalence of guns in the United States, saying that – while Steinle was a “singular” person – accidental discharges are hardly singular events in a country with such high rates of gun ownership.

“Somebody dies every day from one,” he argued. “Guns are stolen, guns are ditched.”

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