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Deportee accused of killing Kathryn Steinle to stand trial on murder charge

The man accused of fatally shooting 32-year-old Kathryn Steinle while she strolled along San Francisco’s Embarcadero will stand trial for murder, a San Francisco judge ruled Friday.

Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, who prosecutors believe is 52 but is reported to have several aliases and ages, will face charges of second-degree murder and being a felon in possession of a weapon, according to Max Szabo, a spokesman for the San Francisco district attorney’s office.

San Francisco Superior Court Judge Brendan Conroy made the ruling during a preliminary hearing Friday, Szabo confirmed.

Steinle, who had recently moved to San Francisco from the suburb of Pleasanton, was shot in the back July 1 as she walked with her father on Pier 14, near Embarcadero and Mission streets. Steinle’s last words to her father were, “Help me, Dad,” Jim Steinle said, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee weeks later.

Lopez-Sanchez was arrested less than an hour later, about a mile away from the shooting scene. He said in an interview with KGO-TV that he had accidentally fired a gun he said he found wrapped in a T-shirt near a bench. He later said he had taken strong sleeping pills before the incident and that his recollections were murky. It was later discovered that the gun was stolen from a U.S. Bureau of Land Management vehicle. 

Lopez-Sanchez, who had returned to the United States after being deported to Mexico five times, has become a flashpoint in the debate over immigration law and so-called sanctuary cities.

In March, Lopez-Sanchez had completed his third federal prison term for felony reentry into the United States from Mexico. He was transferred to local custody because of a decades-old bench warrant for alleged marijuana possession, but was released after prosecutors decided not to pursue the case. Immigration officials say their request to be notified before Lopez-Sanchez's release was not honored.

San Francisco, a sanctuary city, honors immigration holds only if the person has a violent record or if a judge has vetted the hold or approved a warrant. The city’s sheriff and mayor have defended the policies as a way to protect immigrants without violent criminal records, and encourage them to report crimes to police. 

The San Francisco Sheriff’s Department said federal immigration officials did not seek a court order in the case of Lopez-Sanchez.

The case has sparked calls for immigration reform and prompted California lawmakers to propose laws that would make it harder for local authorities to intervene in cases involving accused criminals scheduled for deportation.

Three-quarters of Californians surveyed oppose sanctuary city policies, according to a poll released Friday by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies. Large majorities across all ethnic groups and political affiliations believe that local authorities should not be allowed to ignore federal immigration holds, according to the survey.

When participants were told about the details of Steinle’s death and the case involving Lopez-Sanchez, opposition to sanctuary city policies rose from 71% to 76%.

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(There are limitations to the data, researchers say. Nearly all of the people surveyed were U.S. citizens, and the survey was conducted only in English.)

Earlier this week, Steinle’s family filed claims against San Francisco city and county, as well as federal immigration officials and the Bureau of Land Management, alleging that all of the agencies bear responsibility for her death.

On Thursday, Judge Conroy ruled that statements that Lopez-Sanchez made to police after his arrest would be admitted in court.

Sanchez’s next court hearing is scheduled for Sept. 18. If convicted, Sanchez faces 45 years to life in prison.

Los Angeles Times staff writer Lee Romney contributed to this report.

For more breaking news, follow me @cmaiduc on Twitter.

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Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

12:15 p.m.: This article was updated to include additional background and information about poll numbers.

The first version of this article was published at 11:20 a.m.

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