The family of Kate Steinle chose not to be in court on the day jurors rendered their verdict in the case of the undocumented Mexican immigrant who was accused in her death.
It was probably for the best. In a decision many found shocking, Jose Ines Garcia Zarate was acquitted of all but the least serious charge he faced.
Who could blame them for not wanting to be part of the spectacle that was sure to follow any verdict?
At their moment of greatest pain, the family had already been forced into an unwelcome spotlight by then-presidential candidate Donald Trump, who used their tragedy to fuel his anti-immigration hysteria.
The death of 32-year-old Steinle, Trump said repeatedly, was the fault of San Francisco’s sanctuary city policy, which prohibits city law enforcement officers from helping federal immigration officials carry out detentions of undocumented immigrants. It demonstrated the urgency of building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico.
“This senseless and totally preventable act of violence committed by an illegal immigrant is yet another example of why we must secure our border immediately,” Trump said two days after Steinle was killed in July 2015. “This is an absolutely disgraceful situation, and I am the only one that can fix it.”
On Friday, the White House press secretary echoed her boss: “Kate Steinle was killed by an illegal immigrant and convicted felon who had been deported from the United States five times,” she said in a written statement. “He, and countless other criminal illegal immigrants like him, should never be allowed to threaten our citizens.”
The politicization of Steinle’s death, and now her killer’s acquittal, has been as inevitable as it has been unfair to her grieving family.
On Thursday, a San Francisco County Superior Court jury found Garcia Zarate, 45, not guilty of murder or manslaughter. Instead, it found him guilty of being a felon in possession of a gun, a single count that can carry a sentence of up to three years in state prison, two years of which he has already served.
Garcia Zarate’s public defenders argued that he found a loaded gun, stolen four days earlier from the locked car of a federal Bureau of Land Management ranger, and accidentally fired it while sitting on Pier 14.
They said the bullet struck the pavement before ricocheting nearly 80 feet, striking Steinle in the back.
Jurors, to their credit, put aside the political noise and judged the case on its facts.
They decided that the death of Kate Steinle, a joyful young woman who deserved a long, full life, was an accident.
I believe the verdict was just.
In late October, I attended the trial’s opening arguments. I thought then, and still do, that the ranger who left his loaded gun in a part of San Francisco where parked cars are frequently targeted by thieves bears some responsibility for the chain of events that led to Steinle’s death, though I don’t think he should be charged with a crime.
Many outraged readers told me they had no doubt that Garcia Zarate had stolen the weapon, even though prosecutors and police said they had no evidence or information that he did. Perhaps they had heard that Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan wrongly claimed that Garcia Zarate had stolen the gun, and fired it multiple times, when he proposed “Kate’s Law,” to stiffen penalties for immigrants crossing into the U.S. illegally.
Evidence in the trial seemed to contradict that.
In early November, the defense presented a grainy surveillance video that captured both the shooting and what occurred on Pier 14 the hour before. Half an hour before Steinle was shot, six people could be seen huddling around a swiveling metal chair.
For nearly 30 minutes, they repeatedly bent down around the base of the chair “setting down and then picking up blurry objects,” said KQED reporter Alex Emslie, who watched the video in court. Half an hour later, Garcia Zarate sat down in the same swiveling metal chair. The footage showed him reaching down, presumably to pick up the gun. Moments later, a bullet from the gun pierced Steinle’s heart.
The verdict, said Jim Steinle, was sad and shocking.
“Justice was rendered,” he told the Chronicle, “but it was not served.”
The dignity and restraint of this family is remarkable. They have never been out for vengeance. And they are not even opposed to the idea of sanctuary cities, they told the Chronicle.
Understandably, they are angry that federal officials returned Garcia Zarate to San Francisco in 2015 to face a 20-year-old marijuana charge when they could have, and should have, deported him. The feds, after all, were aware of San Francisco’s “sanctuary” policy, in which its sheriff refused to communicate with federal immigration authorities. They must have known local prosecutors would drop such a minor case and put the homeless immigrant back on the street.
And understandably, the Steinles are suing the federal government for negligence in connection with the theft of the ranger’s gun. They wanted to sue San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, for failing to hand Garcia Zarate over to immigration, but a judge tossed out that part of their case.
In the aftermath of Steinle’s death, and the vitriolic presidential campaign, the city has made minor changes to its sanctuary policy. It will now honor a federal detainer request, for instance, if the detainee has committed a violent or serious felony in the last seven years. That would not have affected the release of someone like Garcia Zarate, who in all likelihood will be deported — rightfully so — once he serves his term.
“Nothing has happened,” Jim Steinle told the Chronicle. “Nothing has changed. Except Kate’s not here.”