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Undocumented man played ‘Russian Roulette’ with Kate Steinle’s life, prosecutor argues as trial closes

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Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, 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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An undocumented homeless man was playing a “secret game” when he decided to open fire on a busy San Francisco pier and kill 32-year-old Kate Steinle, a prosecutor argued Monday as the high-profile murder trial nears its end.

“He was playing his own secret version of Russian Roulette,” prosecutor Diana Garcia said during her closing argument in the trial of a 45-year-old Mexican national named Jose Ines Garcia Zarate. “He knew exactly what he was doing.”

Garcia described the Pier 14 killing on July 1, 2015, as a premeditated and deliberate act that warrants a first-degree murder conviction.

Garcia’s argument was a departure for the prosecution, which pressed for a lesser second-degree murder charge until last week. The difference is whether Garcia Zarate thought out the alleged act.

“A vibrant life was taken from us because of this man’s actions,” Garcia told the jury. “Kate Steinle was wiped off the face of this Earth while in her father’s arms because of this man’s actions.”

Steinle died after a bullet ricocheted off the pier and struck her in the lower back.

The killing became a national controversy when President Donald Trump used it to call for a crackdown on sanctuary cities like San Francisco during his presidential campaign. But political issues have not entered the courtroom.

During his closing argument in the afternoon, defense attorney Matt Gonzalez maintained that Garcia Zarate is not guilty of murder or even involuntary manslaughter for Steinle’s death.

“This case should not have been charged,” Gonzalez told the jury. “If it were to be charged, it should have been charged as a manslaughter. The only question for you should be, ‘Is this a manslaughter or is this a not guilty verdict?’ I believe this is not manslaughter.”

Unlike murder, involuntary manslaughter does not require intent. Involuntary manslaughter is a lesser included charge of first-degree murder and second-degree murder that Garcia Zarate faces.

Gonzalez said that his client had no motive to kill Steinle and fired the round on accident from 90 feet away. The bullet ricocheted 12 feet away and then struck her in the back.

“He missed Ms. Steinle by 78 feet. But for that ricochet, he does not hit her,” Gonzalez told the jury. “Firing a gun from 90 feet away is just not the way to do it if you are going to plan this thing out.”

Gonzalez told jurors that the gun went off on accident when Garcia Zarate found it wrapped in a rag on the pier.

“He did not know it was a gun,” Gonzalez said. “There is nothing peculiar about a homeless individual who decides to pick something up and look at it.”

Gonzalez claimed that surveillance footage shows a group of unidentified individuals on the pier who could have ditched the stolen gun before Garcia Zarate arrived.

But Garcia questioned why a group of people would leave a stolen weapon on a busy public pier rather than a trash can. The group also “hung around” the pier for 28 minutes, Garcia said.

“The defense wants to sell you a narrative that just doesn’t really make sense,” Garcia told jurors. “Why in the world would they do that? … What you’re seeing is a video of tourists on a pier.”

Garcia showed the jury for the second time that Garcia Zarate could have carried the gun onto the pier in the pockets of his oversized clothing.

“These are deep pockets,” Garcia said, fitting the semi-automatic handgun into the pockets of the pants and coat Garcia Zarate wore on the day of the killing. “You can easily put a gun in any of these pockets.”

Garcia said that photographs showed Garcia Zarate staring at people while sitting in a chair on the pier in a “high-target environment” for nearly half an hour.

“He’s already decided he’s going to fire this gun and he’s looking at people to see who he’s going to shoot because it’s a big game to him,” Garcia said. “He waited until nobody was around him.”

Two seconds later, he threw the gun in the water and walked off the pier, Garcia said.

Gonzalez said the prosecution has made up a “wild narrative” to convict Garcia Zarate of murder. He chalked up the killing to one of the many accidental discharges that happens in the U.S. because of the prevalence of firearms.

The prosecution and defense also offered conflicting points of view on gunshot residue collected from Garcia Zarate’s hands. While Garcia said they tested positive for firing a gun, Gonzalez pointed out that police collected only a single gunshot residue particle.

There is also an issue over whether the gun was in single-action mode or double-action mode when it discharged. Double-action mode requires more pressure on the trigger to fire.

Garcia said police recovered the weapon in single-action mode after the shooting, which is consistent with the first shot being fired in double-action mode.

But Gonzalez questioned how the prosecution could know what mode it was in and argued that firing the gun in single-action could easily be done on accident.

Garcia Zarate is also facing charges of assault with a semi-automatic firearm and being a felon in possession of a firearm.

Gonzalez is expected to continue his closing argument Tuesday, and Garcia has a chance for rebuttal.

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