Op-Ed: The Kate Steinle verdict will please few, and be manipulated by many

Flowers and a portrait of Kate Steinle remain at a memorial site on Pier 14 in San Francisco on Dec. 1.
(Ben Margot / Associated Press)

The acquittal of Jose Ines Garcia Zarate in a San Francisco courtroom on Thursday will bring joy to few and pain to many. That’s the trouble with the rule of law: It doesn’t always offer comfort or satisfaction. When dispensed properly, justice is an utterly dispassionate force.

On a summer evening in 2015, Garcia Zarate, a homeless immigrant living in the country illegally, unwrapped a cloth object under a bench on a San Francisco pier. Inside the cloth was a gun that had been stolen days before.

Some moments after Garcia Zarate’s inauspicious discovery, a 32-year-old woman who had been walking along the pier lay dying in her father’s arms. “Help me, dad,” Kathryn Steinle said, in what would be her last words. Garcia Zarate, a Mexican national deported five times, was arrested for her killing, which prosecutors claimed had been intentional. Defense attorneys argued that the fatal bullet, which ricocheted off the pier’s concrete surface before hitting Steinle, had been fired by accident, launched from the barrel of an overly-sensitive weapon.


Outside the courtroom if not in it, the Zarate trial was about far more than the culpability of a single man.

When Donald Trump was on the campaign trail, he alluded to Steinle in his diatribes against illegal immigration. If Garcia Zarate wasn’t exactly a cartel boss, he did have a lengthy arrest record. “This is an absolutely disgraceful situation and I am the only one that can fix it,” Trump said several days after Steinle’s death. “Nobody else has the guts to even talk about it. That won’t happen if I become president.”

Anyone who showed up to Garcia Zarate’s trial in the San Francisco Hall of Justice, however, would have encountered no philippics about open borders, nor any passionate orations about the Statue of Liberty. Issues of immigration, or Garcia Zarate’s criminal record, were not admissible in Judge Samuel Feng’s courtroom. There was only one question: Did he mean to fire that gun?

I went to trial one day — and promptly fell asleep. The testimony was about trigger pulls. There was also talk of ballistics. It was dull stuff, but inspiring for that exact reason. Whatever verdict the jury ultimately reached, I knew this was how it was supposed to work: a cool competition between facts, not a heated ideological battle.

Garcia Zarate struck me less as a murderer than a wastrel. The jury apparently agreed. After nearly six days of deliberations, Garcia Zarate was acquitted on both murder and manslaughter charges. He will, however, face prison time for felony possession of a weapon. When that sentence is through, he will presumably be deported to Mexico for the sixth time.

Outside the courtroom if not in it, the Garcia Zarate trial was about far more than the culpability of a single man. On trial with him were the “sanctuary” policies of cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles, where local law enforcement are largely hindered from cooperating with federal immigration agents. If such a policy had not been in place, Garcia Zarate would have been turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the spring of 2015. Instead, he was released from a San Francisco jail. Two months later, Steinle was dead.

After the verdict was read, one of Garcia Zarate’s defense attorneys, Francisco Ugarte, deemed it “a day of vindication for the rest of immigrants.” It’s hard to agree, given that immigration wasn’t discussed at the trial. Nor had Garcia Zarate cast himself as a martyr for all those who’d made it through the deserts of Texas and Arizona. He wasn’t a Dreamer, he wasn’t a temporary worker toiling in the fields of South Carolina so that diners in Brooklyn can glory in organic heritage grains. He was his own man, in the most miserable way imaginable.


I asked the White House if President Trump had any comment on the Steinle verdict. Before any reply could come, a tweet materialized on my iPhone screen. “A disgraceful verdict in the Kate Steinle case!” Trump wrote on Twitter. “No wonder the people of our Country are so angry with Illegal Immigration.”

Somewhat more curious was a statement from Michael Grimm, a Republican who is running to reclaim his congressional seat in New York City. He lost it the old-fashioned way: by going to prison for tax evasion. While he served in the House, though, Grimm struck a moderate stance on immigration, pushing for a solution that would have included both stronger border security and some path to legal status for the nation’s undocumented residents.

That was not the Grimm who reacted to the Garcia Zarate verdict. “Cowardice gives animals like Zarate safe harbor,” he said. In calling Garcia Zarate an “animal,” Grimm was doubtlessly alluding to Trump’s description of the crime: “This man, or this animal, that shot that wonderful, that beautiful woman in San Francisco, this guy was pushed back by Mexico,” candidate Trump once told CNN.

Garcia Zarate is the perfect bogeyman for Republicans running in 2018, an updated Willie Horton — the convicted killer who committed rape while on weekend furlough. The infamous Horton ad, aired by the George H.W. Bush campaign in 1988, worked because many Americans believed that liberal social programs were undermining social order. The belief may well have been misguided, but it was prevalent. If that weren’t the case, then Bush’s opponent Michael Dukakis — who as governor of Massachusetts allowed for furloughs like the one granted Horton — would possibly have been elected president.

Lee Atwater, the Republican hatchet man responsible for the Horton ad, once said, “By the time we’re finished, they’re going to wonder whether Willie Horton is Dukakis’ running mate.” I suspect that GOP operatives are similarly planning to force any Democratic candidate running in 2018 — and 2020 — into a political marriage with Garcia Zarate.

The outlines of that effort are already visible. On Fox News, commentators thundered against the verdict, with anchor Gregg Jarrett writing on the network’s website, “If you are inclined to commit a heinous crime, San Francisco is the place for you.” Steinle “would still be alive if we had a wall,” conservative pundit Ann Coulter said on Twitter after the verdict was announced.

Nor is discomfort with the verdict confined to the right. “Justice is not served,” said the leading editorial from the San Francisco Chronicle on Friday. The editorial noted that, following sanctuary city policies, an inmate with Garcia Zarate’s record “could be released on the streets today.” You don’t need a Lee Atwater to make an ad out of that.

The shame in all this — or one of many, at any rate — is that Garcia Zarate is not even remotely representative of immigrants, legal or otherwise. The trial, however, does represent the American criminal justice system at its best. Its apotheosis is not the electric chair, or the rabid mob, but an unemotional verdict. If there is any good in this whole grim affair, it is that.

Alexander Nazaryan is a senior writer at Newsweek covering national politics.

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