A San Francisco jury, on Thursday, found Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, a homeless undocumented immigrant, not guilty for the 2015 shooting death of 32-year-old Kate Steinle. The timing and specifics of Steinle’s tragic death catapulted the case into the national spotlight as a cause célèbre for then-candidate Donald Trump, who seized upon the death of “beautiful Kate,” as he referred to her on the stump. Languishing in seventh behind his Republican competitors at the time, just two weeks into his campaign, Trump used Garcia Zarate’s past—he had been deported from the U.S. five times and had seven felony convictions, including drug charges—as proof of his campaign’s anti-immigrant operating thesis.
“For Donald Trump, we were just what he needed—beautiful girl, San Francisco, illegal immigrant, arrested a million times, a violent crime and yadda, yadda, yadda,” Steinle’s mother, Liz Sullivan, told the San Francisco Chronicle months after her daughter’s death. “We were the perfect storm for that man.” The fact that San Francisco Sheriff’s Department, months before the shooting, had refused to tell federal immigration officials when undocumented Garcia Zarate was to be released from jail made it a touchstone in the national debate on sanctuary cities.
Despite the national political implications, the San Francisco jury was charged with a more discreet task of criminal culpability for Steinle’s death. Steinle, a medical equipment saleswoman, was out for a July afternoon walk with her dad on San Francisco’s Pier 14 when she was struck in the back by a single bullet. The bullet, shot from a stolen gun, ricocheted off the concrete before striking Steinle. Garcia Zarate admitted to accidentally firing the gun.
The case came down to a question of intent. From the San Francisco Chronicle:
San Francisco prosecutors told the Superior Court jury that Garcia Zarate intentionally brought the gun to the pier that day with the intent of doing harm, aimed the gun toward Steinle and pulled the trigger. [The] Assistant District Attorney [-] spent much of the trial seeking to prove the gun that killed Steinle couldn’t have fired without a firm pull of the trigger, while establishing that Garcia Zarate tossed the weapon into the bay before fleeing the scene — an implication of his guilt, she said.
Defense lawyers said the shooting was an accident that happened when Garcia Zarate, who had a history of drug crimes but no record of violence, found the gun wrapped in a T-shirt or cloth under his seat on the pier just seconds before it discharged in his hands. Matt Gonzalez of the public defender’s office said his client had never handled a gun and was scared by the noise, prompting him to fling the weapon into the bay, where a diver fished it out a day later.
The jury considered first-degree and second-degree murder charges, as well as involuntary manslaughter charges against Garcia Zarate, but, after six days of deliberation, found the 45-year-old Mexican citizen guilty only of being a felon in possession of a firearm.