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  — 

The case sparked a fierce debate over sanctuary cities, and forced San Francisco officials to defend its policy. President Donald Trump invoked the case in decrying sanctuary cities and promoting the construction of the wall along the Mexican border.

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.

Sessions used the verdict to urge local officials to cooperate with federal law enforcement agencies.

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.”

Steinle’s family: Justice ‘was not served’

Assistant District Attorney Alex Bastian said prosecutors were disappointed by 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.

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. He also told police that he stepped on the gun, causing it to fire.

Juors began deliberating Tuesday in the murder trial of Jose Ines Garcia Zarate.

Prosecutors said Garcia Zarate immediately tried to cover his tracks by throwing the gun into the San Francisco Bay, then fleeing the scene.

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.

Immigration debate

The undocumented status of the defendant and San Francisco’s status as a “sanctuary city” brought the murder trial into the larger political debate on immigration policies.

Garcia Zarate had been deported from the United States five times before the shooting. Before the shooting, officials in San Francisco released Garcia Zarate from custody instead of turning him over to immigration authorities.

Steinle’s family sued last year, alleging that San Francisco and its former sheriff were partly to blame for her death because officials never notified Immigration and Customs Enforcement when Garcia Zarate was released from a local jail in April 2015.

Donald Trump mentioned Steinle’s case on the campaign trail as part of his argument for a stricter approach to immigration policy.

“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 a statement 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 included 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.

Dan Simon reported from San Francisco. Holly Yan reported and wrote in Atlanta. CNN’s Eric Levenson, Nicole Chavez, Cheri Mossburg, Darran Simon, Phil Gast, Rosalina Nieves Sarah Moon and Braden Walker contributed to this report.