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Defense shows questions lost in translation during police interrogation of Kate Steinle’s alleged killer

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Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, right, is lead into the courtroom by San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi, left, and Assistant District Attorney Diana Garcia for arraignment on July 7, 2015. (Michael Macor/2015 San Francisco Chronicle via Pool)
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The jumbled confession of an undocumented immigrant on trial for the death of Kate Steinle became even more confusing Thursday, when the defense showed that a police interpreter mistranslated questions for its Spanish-speaking client during an interrogation.

The final witness for defense attorneys testified that Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, a 45-year-old Mexican national charged with second-degree murder, did not admit to pulling the trigger on the gun that killed Steinle on July 1, 2015.

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A murder conviction hinges on whether the prosecution can prove Garcia Zarate intended to pull the trigger and shoot the gun in Steinle’s direction on Pier 14. The defense claims that the shooting was an accident since the bullet ricocheted off the ground before striking Steinle in the back.

Fanny Suarez, an expert translator who is also an investigator for the Public Defender’s Office, testified that Officer Martin Covarrubias did not translate questions correctly for Garcia Zarate during a police interrogation in the early morning hours after the shooting.

When Lt. Anthony Ravano asked Garcia Zarate in English if he pulled the trigger, Covarrubias asked Garcia Zarate in Spanish if he fired the gun. Garcia Zarate answered “yes.”

“Does Officer Covarrubias ever translate ‘pull the trigger accurately?’” asked Francisco Ugarte, a defense attorney for Garcia Zarate.

“No, he does not,” Suarez said.

Matt Gonzalez, another attorney for Garcia Zarate, told reporters that the defense highlighted the inaccurate translation so that jurors could read a transcript of the interrogation “in a fair context.”

“The people’s entire theory of the case has been, ‘He pulled the trigger,’” Gonzalez said. “Let’s just be clear, Inspector Ravano may have said that, and he may have believed that’s what’s being translated, but it wasn’t.”

The defense rested its case Thursday morning after Suarez testified.

Since Monday, the defense has called seven witnesses to the stand to argue that Garcia Zarate fired the gun on accident when he found it wrapped in a rag on the pier.

“We’ve covered a lot of ground,” Gonzalez said. “This jury has been very attentive and we’re ready to argue the case. The jury will have to make the decision ultimately.”

Prosecutor Diana Garcia rested her case Nov. 2, but is expected to call at least one witness Monday as a rebuttal to the defense.

The case first drew national attention when President Donald Trump used it to call for a crackdown on sanctuary cities during his presidential campaign.

The San Francisco Sheriff’s Department released Garcia Zarate from jail several months before the killing instead of handing him to federal immigration authorities for deportation.

Attorneys on both sides are scheduled to present closing arguments to jurors Nov. 20.

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