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Key witness for prosecution in Kate Steinle trial faces police misconduct claims in federal court

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John Evans, a retired police inspector, walks into court Oct. 30 to testify in the case against Jose Ines Garcia Zarate for the 2015 killing of Kate Steinle. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
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A key witness for the prosecution in the Kate Steinle murder trial is facing a police misconduct lawsuit in federal court, calling his crucial testimony into question for defense attorneys in the trial.

John Evans, a retired San Francisco police inspector, allegedly made inaccurate statements while on the stand during another high-profile murder trial in 2015. Evans is the only witness in the trial of an undocumented homeless man to testify that the shooter aimed in Steinle’s direction and pulled the trigger.

Whether the prosecution can prove those assertions will determine whether jurors convict Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, a 45-year-old undocumented Mexican national, with second-degree murder. The killing drew national attention to San Francisco in the debate on sanctuary cities and immigration.

“Mr. Evans’ apparent fabrication while testifying in a 2015 homicide trial is troubling and raises questions about his integrity,” Francisco Ugarte, an attorney for Garcia Zarate, said Sunday. “At worst, he lied intentionally, and at best, he was incompetent to testify about ballistics evidence.”

The City Attorney’s Office is representing Evans in the case.

“These complaints against Inspector Evans are completely false,” said John Cote, a spokesperson for the City Attorney’s Office.

The news comes as the murder trial enters its fourth week in San Francisco Superior Court. Prosecutor Diana Garcia is expected to call at least one rebuttal witness Monday after the defense rested its case last Thursday.

Evans elicited an outburst from defense attorney Matt Gonzalez when he testified Oct. 30 that the bullet travelled in a straight line from the barrel of the gun, to a divot in the ground where the bullet ricocheted, to Steinle’s back.

“A human being held the firearm, pointed it in the direction of Ms. Steinle and pulled the trigger, firing the weapon and killing the victim,” Evans said in court. “That is the only way that this could have occurred that is reasonable.”

Alex Bastian, a spokesperson for the District Attorney’s Office, defended Evans’ credibility.

“We make determinations of people’s credibility based on objective, verifiable facts,” Bastian said. “We don’t make them based on unsubstantiated allegations made in a civil lawsuit.”

Evans is one of more than a dozen defendants listed in a lawsuit filed in Oakland federal court in January 2016 alleging that police misconduct led to the wrongful conviction of Jamal Trulove in the July 2007 killing of Seu Kuka.

Trulove, who appeared on the reality television show I Love New York 2, was later acquitted in March 2015 after a retrial.

Evans testified during the retrial that shell casings end up in random locations on the ground after ejecting from a handgun rather than to the rear-right of the shooter, according to court records.

Evans also said that a “large percentage” of shell casings end up in front of the muzzle and cited a study by the San Francisco Police Department.

But the police inspector who performed the study refuted those claims in a deposition, according to court records. Inspector Ronan Shouldice later told attorneys in the federal lawsuit that Evans’ statements were “inaccurate” and a “misrepresentation” of the study.

James Norris, the former head of the San Francisco police crime lab, testified as a witness for the defense in the Steinle trial and has also been hired to work on the Trulove lawsuit. Norris contradicted Evans’ testimony in the Steinle trial when he said the bullet bounced randomly.

In the federal lawsuit, he also took issue with Evans’ statements on shell casings.

“Evans’s findings are completely inconsistent with minimally acceptable practices for forensic reporting and testimony,” Norris said in an Oct. 10 report field in federal court. “If, as the Director of the Forensic Services Division, I learned of such behavior by an Inspector in Crime Scene Investigations, I would have initiated an investigation into the matter for possible misconduct.”

It has yet to be seen whether the federal lawsuit will have an impact on Evans’ testimony in the Steinle trial.

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