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Alternate juror defends Kate Steinle verdict, says murder charge ‘should not have been brought’

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Sheriff’s deputies exit the courtroom inside the Hall of Justice in San Francisco, Calif. Thursday, October 16, 2017. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
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An undocumented immigrant acquitted of wrongdoing in the death of Kate Steinle should never have faced a murder charge in the first place, an alternate juror in the murder trial said Wednesday.

Phil Van Stockum, a physicist and the co-founder of an energy startup on the Peninsula, is the first juror to speak publicly after the jury returned a verdict Nov. 30 that outraged the conservative media and President Donald Trump.

SEE RELATED: DA Gascon accepts responsibility for verdict in Steinle trial

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“The jury did something honorable here,” Van Stockum, 33, told the San Francisco Examiner after writing about the verdict for Politico. “It’s hard to put aside your biases no matter what situation you’re in.”

Though he did not vote on the verdict or participate in deliberations as an alternate juror, Van Stockum said he viewed all of the evidence in the trial and spoke with the jurors for hours after the verdict.

“I was not surprised at all to hear the not guilty verdict on the murder counts,” Van Stockum said. “The murder charges… I thought should not have been brought.”

Phil Van Stockum (Photo courtesy Phil Van Stockum)

Van Stockum’s comments come after District Attorney George Gascon on Tuesday stood behind his decision to charge 45-year-old Jose Ines Garcia Zarate with first-degree murder in the killing at Pier 14 on July 1, 2015.

Critics have questioned whether prosecutor Diana Garcia overcharged the case by having Judge Samuel K. Feng instruct the jury on first-degree murder as well as lesser included charges of second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter.

The defense claimed Garcia Zarate shot Steinle on accident when he found a stolen gun wrapped in a rag on the pier.

“I do believe that it is a reasonable inference based on the evidence,” Van Stockum said. “I can’t say that that’s what I believe occured.”

Van Stockum said the defense’s theory was a reasonable interpretation of the evidence, and under the law the jury had to side with a reasonable interpretation of the evidence that favored Garcia Zarate, even if the prosecution presented another reasonable interpretation of the evidence.

Nonetheless, Van Stockum said Garcia had no evidence to prove the killing was premeditated to warrant a first-degree murder conviction or at least intentional to warrant a second-degree murder conviction.

“There just was not specific evidence of the state of mind of the defendant,” Van Stockum said.

Garcia pivoted toward a first-degree murder charge near the end of the trial, prompting criticism that her decision to raise the stakes from second-degree to first-degree murder may have impacted the verdict.

But Van Stockum said jurors were not aware of the last-minute decision.

“Even if we had been surprised by that or been confused by that first-degree murder charge, it did not have an effect on their objective analysis of the facts in the law,” Van Stockum said.

Van Stockum said manslaughter seemed to be an “appropriate charge” for the case, but the jury could not convict on involuntary manslaughter because of complications in the jury instructions.

The instructions required them to find Garcia Zarate had brandished the weapon, which Van Stockum said there was no evidence for.

“It was a non-starter for the jury with that brandishing count,” Van Stockum said.

Jurors deliberated for longer than four full days before returning the verdict. Van Stockum said jurors were not stuck trying to convince one dissenting member, for instance, but spent a lengthy amount of time reviewing the evidence.

Van Stockum said the jury watched videos from the trial, which included a recording of a police interrogation where Garcia Zarate admitted to shooting Steinle and aiming at a sea animal on the pier.

The defense also showed surveillance footage of a group of unidentified people putting down and picking up objects at the seat on the pier where Garcia Zarate claimed to have found the gun about a half hour later.

Van Stockum also said the judge denied the jury’s request to test the trigger pull of the gun. Defense attorney Matt Gonzalez urged jurors to test the gun to see that the trigger pull was “very light” and could easily be pulled on accident.

The jury did convict Garcia Zarate of one charge for being a felon in possession of a firearm. Gonzalez plans to appeal that decision.

Garcia Zarate is due back in court for a status hearing Dec. 14.

After his sentencing in San Francisco Superior Court, Garcia Zarate will also face federal charges of being a felon in possession of a firearm and being an undocumented immigrant in possession of a firearm.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office filed the charges Tuesday.

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