Undocumented immigrant acquitted in Kate Steinle death

Story highlights

  • A jury convicted Jose Ines Garcia Zarate of being a felon in possession of a firearm
  • Kate Steinle's death spurred legislation called "Kate's Law," though it has not passed the Senate

San Francisco (CNN)A jury on Thursday found an undocumented immigrant not guilty in the July 2015 death of Kate Steinle, a decision that reignited the debate over immigration policy.

Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, 45, was acquitted of murder and involuntary manslaughter charges, as well as assault with a deadly weapon. Jurors convicted the Mexican citizen of being a felon in possession of a firearm, which could bring a three-year sentence.
Prosecutors had argued Garcia Zarate intentionally shot Steinle, 32, with a Sig Sauer .40-caliber handgun as she and her father walked on San Francisco's Pier 14. But Garcia Zarate's defense attorney said the shooting was accidental and the bullet ricocheted off the ground and traveled about 80 feet before hitting Steinle.
    Federal immigration officials said they will try to deport Garcia Zarate. He had been deported from the United States five times prior to Steinle's death.
    Reaction to the jury's decision, after more than 24 hours of deliberation over six days, was swift. President Donald Trump called the verdict "disgraceful." Attorney General Jeff Sessions said San Franciso's status as a sanctuary city was largely to blame for what happened that summer day. Before the shooting, officials in San Francisco released Garcia Zarate from custody instead of turning him over to immigration authorities.
    Kate Steinle, 32, was killed in July 2015.
    "A disgraceful verdict in the Kate Steinle case! No wonder the people of our Country are so angry with Illegal Immigration," the President tweeted.
    "I urge the leaders of the nation's communities to reflect on the outcome of this case and consider carefully the harm they are doing to their citizens by refusing to cooperate with federal law enforcement officers," Sessions said in a statement.
    Sessions said: "When jurisdictions choose to return criminal aliens to the streets rather than turning them over to federal immigration authorities, they put the public's safety at risk."
    Conservative pundit Ann Coulter said Steinle "would still be alive if we had a wall," referring to the President's call for the construction of a border wall between the US and Mexico.
    But one of the defendant's lawyers said the debate over immigration didn't belong in the case.
    "From day one, this case was used as a means to foment hate, to foment division and to foment a program of mass deportation," public defender Francisco Ugarte said.
    "Nothing about Mr. Garcia Zarate's ethnicity, nothing about his immigration status, nothing about the fact that he is born in Mexico had any relevance as to what happened on July 1, 2015," the defense attorney said.

    Steinle's family: Justice 'was not served'

    Assistant District Attorney Alex Bastian said prosecutors were disappointed in the verdict but respected the jury's decision.
    "I can't stress this enough, this really is about the Steinle family. They've shown incredible resolve in this whole process," he said. "Our hearts go out to them."
    Steinle's family did hear the jury's decision. Before the verdict, they told the San Francisco Chronicle that above all, they were looking forward to no longer being in the spotlight.
    "We just want to get this over with and move on with our lives, and think about Kate on our terms. Nothing's been on our terms. It's been on everyone else's terms," said Steinle's father, Jim.
    After the verdict, Jim Steinle told the Chronicle he was "saddened and shocked."
    "There's no other way you can coin it. Justice was rendered, but it was not served," he said.

    Deportation imminent?

    Tom Homan, deputy director of the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, also criticized San Francisco's sanctuary city policy.
    "San Francisco's policy of refusing to honor ICE detainers is a blatant threat to public safety and undermines the rule of law," he said in a statement. "This tragedy could have been prevented if San Francisco had simply turned the alien over to ICE, as we requested, instead of releasing him back onto the streets. ... Following the conclusion of this case, ICE will work to take custody of Mr. Garcia Zarate and ultimately remove him from the country."

    The fatal shooting

    Steinle, her father and a friend were at the pier when a bullet struck Steinle's lower back and tore through her abdominal aorta, authorities said.
    Surveillance video showed Garcia Zarate running away. After his arrest, investigators found gunshot residue on his right hand, prosecutor Diana Garcia told jurors.
    Garcia Zarate faced a charge of second-degree murder, but jurors also were allowed to consider first-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter convictions.
    Prosecutors said Garcia Zarate was playing his own "secret version of Russian roulette" and deliberately fired into an unsuspecting crowd on the pier, killing Steinle.
    Defense attorney Matt Gonzalez said Garcia Zarate found the gun at the pier. He said it was wrapped in cloth, and when Garcia Zarate unwrapped it, the gun accidentally discharged.
    But in a police interrogation, Garcia Zarate admitted to firing the gun, saying he was aiming at a seal.
    Juors began deliberating Tuesday in the murder trial of Jose Ines Garcia Zarate.
    He told police that he stepped on the gun, causing it to fire.
    Prosecutors said Garcia Zarate immediately tried to cover his tracks by throwing the gun into the San Francisco Bay, then fleeing the scene.
    Garcia Zarate was formerly known as Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, one of several aliases he is known to have used. CNN and other media outlets previously identified him as Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez.

    Sanctuary cities and 'Kate's Law'

    Steinle's death stirred an already heated debate over immigration. Before the shooting, officials in San Francisco had released Garcia Zarate from custody instead of turning him over to immigration authorities.
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    Freya Horne, chief legal counsel to the San Francisco County Sheriff, said in a 2015 interview that Garcia Zarate was let go because there was no legal cause to detain the suspect.
    Steinle's family filed a lawsuit in 2016 alleging that San Francisco and its former sheriff were partly to blame for Steinle's death, because officials never notified Immigration and Customs Enforcement when Garcia Zarate was released from a local jail in April 2015. City officials have said they're not liable for a former inmate's actions. A federal judge dismissed the family's claims against San Francisco and former Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi earlier this year.
    Steinle's death became a rallying cry for Trump and others, who have invoked the case in decrying sanctuary cities and promoting the construction of the border wall.
    "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 in July 2015. "This is an absolutely disgraceful situation and I am the only one that can fix it. Nobody else has the guts to even talk about it. That won't happen if I become President."
    Trump also mentioned Steinle in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention after winning the Republican presidential nomination.
    This summer, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 3004, dubbed "Kate's Law" -- a measure named for Steinle. The legislation would increase maximum prison penalties for immigrants caught repeatedly entering the US illegally.
    The measure was introduced in the Senate but failed to get the 60 votes needed to pass.