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Jurors hear confession of Kate Steinle’s alleged killer for first time

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Jose Inez Garcia Zarate sits in the Hall of Justice courtroom during his trial for allegedly killing Kate Steinle. (Vicki Behringer/Special to S.F. Examiner)
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Jurors heard the muddled confession of an undocumented homeless man accused of killing Kate Steinle for the first time Wednesday in the politically volatile murder trial.

Prosecutor Diana Garcia played a portion of the recorded police interrogation of Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, a Mexican citizen charged with second-degree murder for allegedly firing a single bullet that ricocheted off a San Francisco pier and struck Steinle in the back July 1, 2015.

Garcia Zarate copped to the shooting in a confusing, contradictory and nearly five-hour long interrogation at the Hall of Justice in the early morning hours of July 2. The killing sparked outrage across the nation when President Donald Trump used it to paint Mexican immigrants as criminals and drug dealers.

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Huddled in the corner of a cold interrogation room, Garcia Zarate at first told two homicide investigators and a police translator that he was not on Pier 14 the day of the shooting. Garcia Zarate said he was sitting on a planter on the Embarcadero eating saltine crackers.

But after police presented him with what Lt. Anthony Ravano, the lead investigating officer in the homicide, called “fake evidence,” Garcia Zarate admitted to sitting on the pier, shooting Steinle and throwing the gun off the pier.

In one exchange with homicide investigator Sgt. Chris Canning, Garcia Zarate said the shooting was both accidental and intentional. Garcia Zarate spoke to the officers in Spanish through police translator Officer Martin Covarrubias.

“Did you mean to do it?” Canning asked.

“No,” Zarate responded.

“Was it an accident?”

“Yes.”

“But you made the decision to pull the trigger, correct?”

“Yes.”

“What did you think was going to happen after you pulled the trigger?”

“That I was not going to be able to keep it in my hand because it was big and fat.”

Defense attorney Matt Gonzalez told reporters after court that police pushed and led Garcia Zarate into his answers during the interrogation that lasted until nearly 6 a.m.

“The fact that very skilled and experienced and educated interrogators can get a second-grade [educated] Mexican immigrant to adopt what they are saying, like that Kate Steinle was five-feet away when the gun discharged, that doesn’t make it true,” Gonzalez said.

Ravano said in court that investigators lied to Garcia Zarate about witnesses who saw the shooting, gunshot residue recovered from his hands, the handgun they pulled from the water and a DNA match connecting him to the weapon.

“It was just another tactic to help motivate him or elicit a more truthful response,” Ravano said in court.

Police had not yet recovered the handgun that Garcia Zarate admitted to throwing into the San Francisco Bay and had not yet tested the gunshot residue swabbed from his hand.

Police still have no witnesses who saw the shooter open fire and never matched Garcia Zarate’s DNA to the weapon.

Though he admitted to pulling the trigger, Garcia Zarate also told police a contradictory narrative that Gonzalez has used to argue the shooting was accidental. The prosecution must prove that Garcia Zarate intended to pull the trigger for the jury to convict on a second-degree murder charge.

Garcia Zarate said he was homeless, collecting bottles and cans for work, when he found the gun wrapped in a heavy rag or shirt on the pier.

“When I was walking along, there was a rag and stuff and I stepped on it and then it fired,” Garcia Zarate said in Spanish, according to the translation from Covarrubias. “I was trying to prevent the gun from firing by itself.”

The only motive for the shooting that Garcia Zarate offered to police was that he was aiming at a sea lion. When asked whether Steinle made him mad, spoke to him or looked at him in a bad way, he said “No.”

He also told police that he was born Sept. 1, 1863.

Gonzalez is expected to show another portion of the police interrogation video to jurors in court Thursday morning.

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