San Francisco Dist. Atty. George Gascón held his first news conference Tuesday regarding a jury’s acquittal last week of a man in the country illegally who had been accused of killing a woman in San Francisco.
Kathryn Steinle was shot in the back in July 2015 as she walked with her father on Pier 14, in the heart of the city's tourist district. Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, a seven-time felon who had been deported from the U.S. to Mexico numerous times, was arrested less than an hour later about a mile away.
Gascón said he had intentionally refrained from commenting much about the verdict because he wanted the focus to be on the Steinle family.
“From the day the murder happened, this case has been used as a political stunt,” he said. “It pained me to watch politicians and candidates use the tragedy of this event for political gain.”
Late Tuesday, federal authorities charged Garcia Zarate with immigration and gun violations.
After four days of deliberation, a jury in San Francisco on Friday convicted Garcia Zarate on a single count of being a felon in possession of a firearm. He has not yet been sentenced.
Gascón said that even though he disagrees with the jury’s decision, he respects their work and the legal process.
“If there was any failure in the preparation and presentation of this case, the responsibility is mine and mine alone,” he said. “The homicide team in my office worked tirelessly on this case, and I hope that their hard work is appreciated even if they were not able to secure a guilty verdict.”
“The Kate Steinle killer came back and back over the weakly protected Obama border, always committing crimes and being violent, and yet this info was not used in court. His exoneration is a complete travesty of justice. BUILD THE WALL!” he wrote.
During the presidential campaign, Trump often cited the case to show the need for a crackdown on illegal immigration. At one point, he referred to Garcia Zarate as “this animal” who “shot that wonderful, that beautiful, woman in San Francisco.”
Regarding a social media campaign calling for people to boycott San Francisco, Gascón said he stands by the city’s values. San Francisco is one of the safest cities in the country, he said, “regardless of what those hatemongers are saying.”
“It is important in times like this to remind ourselves that the vast majority of immigrants are law-abiding members of our community,” he said.
Some news outlets have indicated that the acquittal and Gascón’s initial restrained response could affect his 2019 bid for reelection. He said he wasn’t ducking the media and that he doesn’t think one loss will direct the outcome of the election.
“At the end of the day it’s going to be up to the electorate,” he said. “The people are much wiser and smarter than we’re giving them credit for.”
The trial hinged on whether jurors believed the killing was intentional or, as the defense asserted, accidental. Prosecutors anchored their case on “implied malice.”
Prosecutors had given the jury the option to convict Garcia Zarate, 45, of first- or second-degree murder or involuntary manslaughter.
Judge Samuel Feng would not allow jurors to consider the defendant's immigration status, his five deportations or his multiple drug convictions. They could decide only whether he intentionally shot Steinle on July 1, 2015, or at the least fired the gun with a willful disregard for life.
His defense argued that the weapon went off accidentally in the defendant's hands. A few days before the shooting, the gun had been stolen nearby from a federal ranger's parked car, but Garcia Zarate — who said he had found the gun — was not charged with that crime.
Legal experts said prosecutors had an uphill battle because there was no clear motive in the case. Further muddling the shooter’s intentions: evidence that the bullet hit the ground just 12 feet from the defendant before ricocheting those 78 feet into Steinle.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.