The fate of an undocumented homeless man accused of murdering Kate Steinle is in the hands of the jury after the prosecutor and defense attorney presented competing narratives of the killing one final time.
A dozen jurors began to deliberate Tuesday afternoon on the three felonies that 45-year-old Jose Ines Garcia Zarate is facing in San Francisco Superior Court for the Pier 14 shooting on July 1, 2015.
The killing threw kindling on the nation’s fiery immigration debate when President Donald Trump used the death of “beautiful Kate” to call for a crackdown on sanctuary cities like San Francisco.
Six men and six women from San Francisco will decide whether Garcia Zarate is found not guilty or convicted of first-degree murder, second-degree murder or involuntary manslaughter. The jury will also deliberate on charges of being a felon in possession of a firearm and assault with a semi-automatic weapon.
“He took the life of a young, vibrant, beautiful, cherished woman by the name of Kate Steinle,” prosecutor Diana Garcia told the jury. “For that… I am asking you to find him guilty of murder and all the other charges.”
In the weeks since the trial started Oct. 23, Garcia presented witnesses who saw Garcia Zarate on the pier before and after the shooting. Garcia showed the stolen gun that matched the ricocheted bullet recovered from Steinle’s body. She offered a particle of gunshot residue found on Garcia Zarate’s hand as evidence.
In closing arguments this week, she gathered the “totality of the evidence” into a narrative and told the jury Garcia Zarate was playing a secret game of “Russian Roulette” with the many lives on the pier that day.
Garcia said a photograph showed Garcia Zarate staring at Steinle as she walked by. She cited a witness who testified that Garcia Zarate was spinning in a swivel chair and laughing before the shooting. She said Garcia Zarate sat in the chair for 23 minutes before he pulled the trigger.
The evidence shows the defendant contemplated the killing and deliberately pulled the trigger, according to Garcia.
“I don’t know why he did this, but it’s clear that he wanted to fire the gun at people,” Garcia said. “There’s no reason why this gun would have gone off other than the defendant decided to fire it.”
Matt Gonzalez, a defense attorney for Garcia Zarate, used closing arguments to methodically try to unravel each bit of Garcia’s narrative. He also presented a counter theory for how the shooting was “an accident waiting to happen.”
Gonzalez claims Garcia Zarate found the stolen gun wrapped in a rag on the pier. The gun was stolen from a federal ranger’s parked vehicle in San Francisco four days before the shooting.
“The hallmark of an unforeseen accident is often a confluence of forces coming together to cause an exceptional moment that afterwards everyone doubts could happen,” Gonzalez told jurors.
Gonzalez has grainy surveillance video of a group of six people “putting down different objects” near a chair on the pier nearly a half hour before Garcia Zarate sat in the chair. Gonzalez said the video shows Garcia Zarate bending down in the chair the moment a shot rang out.
“This is the real thing, this is what’s going on right beforehand,” Gonzalez told the jury. “Can you say this is irrelevant?”
Gonzalez suggested that police would have found evidence corroborating his theory, but homicide investigators did not believe Garcia Zarate when he told them he picked up the gun and it went off.
Instead of investigating the unidentified crowd, Gonzalez said the prosecution has gone “deeper and deeper” into a theory that does not make sense. He told the jury they have to side with his version of events if it is reasonable and find Garcia Zarate not guilty of all the charges.
Gonzalez acknowledged a list of facts he said were proven, from Garcia Zarate handling an “object” on the pier, to police finding only a single particle of gunshot residue on Garcia Zarate’s hands, to the “contradictory” and “untrue” statements that Garcia Zarate made to police after the shooting.
“All of this is consistent with he picked up an object, didn’t know what it was and a bullet was fired. He didn’t intend to hurt anyone,” Gonzalez said. “He picked up an object, he did not know its character and it went off.”
The prosecution cast doubt on the defense theory during closing arguments. Garcia questioned why a group of people would ditch a stolen gun on a busy pier where “people are taking pictures.”
“They could throw it in the water, just like the defendant did,” Garcia said. “This is a fiction that they want you to believe.”
The jury will deliberate until Wednesday afternoon before breaking for the Thanksgiving holiday. Deliberations will continue the following week unless the jury reaches a verdict.
Read more criminal justice news on the Crime Ink page in print. Follow us on Twitter: @sfcrimeink