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Judge to weigh potential murder trial in Steinle killing

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Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez stands in court with his attorney and pleads not guilty to homicide during his arraignment at the Hall of Justice on Tuesday, July 7, 2015, in San Francisco. Prosecutors have charged the Mexican immigrant with murder in the waterfront shooting death of 32-year-old Kathryn Steinle. (Michael Macor/San Francisco Chronicle via AP, Pool)
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A San Francisco Superior Court judge will decide Friday whether Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, the undocumented immigrant accused of killing Kathryn Steinle on Pier 14 in July, will be tried before a jury on second-degree murder or a lesser charge.

Judge Brendan Conroy heard the last of the evidence Thursday, including witness testimony and a dramatic video appearing to show Steinle soon after she was shot, in a case that has prompted nationwide scrutiny of immigration policy.

Chief Attorney for the Public Defender’s Office Matt Gonzalez told reporters outside the courtroom that the best case scenario for his client is a manslaughter trial.

“If it’s a ricochet and it’s a single bullet fired,” Gonzalez said. “Then what’s the prosecutorial theory? That he’s a bad shot? It doesn’t make sense as a purposeful malice of forethought murder.”

The preliminary hearing was pushed into this week because the defense filed a motion to throw out evidence based on the warrantless arrest of Lopez-Sanchez. As a result, prosecutor Diana Garcia called to the stand a witness who took photographs, police officers and the arresting officer.

“It’s a very close call,” Conroy said before he decided that police had probable cause to arrest Lopez-Sanchez, ruling in favor of the prosecution, even though officers detained Sanchez for more hours than generally permitted under the law.

Assistant District Attorney Diana Garcia argued for probable cause first through the testimony of Aryn Carpenter, a college student who took photographs of Lopez-Sanchez from a nearby hotel room.

Carpenter was in the restroom when she heard a gunshot and went to the window alongside friend Maria Moreno, according to her testimony. Both women noticed Lopez-Sanchez was walking away from Pier 14 while most others were moving toward Steinle.

Carpenter then brought her photographs to police standing near the arch at Pier 14. Officer Craig Dong testified that he then emailed her photos of Lopez-Sanchez to every sworn officer in the department, alongside photos of Lopez-Sanchez taken by another witness.

Officer Andrew Bryant then spotted Lopez-Sanchez further south from Pier 14 along The Embarcadero, he testified Thursday. Bryant first noticed the bald spot on Lopez-Sanchez’s head, which was sent out in a description along with the photos.

“We made eye contact, his eyes, they lit up,” Bryant said in court. “He was surprised.”

Lopez-Sanchez then began to walk away and was arrested at gunpoint by Bryant and other plainclothes officers who appeared at the scene.

After all of the evidence was presented, Gonzalez told reporters that Garcia has no evidence that points to second-degree murder.

The prosecution’s witnesses never saw Lopez-Sanchez with a gun on the pier, only walking away from it, Gonzalez said.

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