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Unintentional discharge likely killed Kate Steinle, firearms expert testifies

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Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, 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 unintentional discharge likely led to the death of Kate Steinle, a firearms expert testified Wednesday in the murder trial of an undocumented homeless man who is accused of pulling the trigger on purpose.

Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, an Mexican national facing a second-degree murder charge in San Francisco Superior Court, is accused of shooting Steinle with a stolen handgun at Pier 14 on July 1, 2015.

A single bullet ricocheted off the ground and traveled 78 feet before striking Steinle in the back. Defense attorneys claim that Garcia Zarate had never fired a gun before the weapon “went off” on accident.

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“These are all indicators for an unintentional discharge,” Alan John Voth, a forensics firearms consultant from Canada, said in court. “I see the probability that this is an unintentional discharge.”

Defense attorneys have been trying to convince jurors that Garcia Zarate accidentally fired the gun when he found it wrapped in a rag on the pier. Attorney Francisco Ugarte framed the killing as just one of the many accidental discharges that happen in the U.S. because of the prevalence of firearms.

“It is consistent with the reality that we have unintentional firearms discharges in this country, it’s a major problem,” Ugarte told reporters. “There are 300 million firearms in this country today, one for every man, woman and child.”

When investigating a shooting, Voth said he looks for eight indicators that suggest an unintentional discharge may have occurred. Those indicators include firing a single shot, an inexperienced shooter and an “illogical bullet strike.”

The Steinle shooting left a divot in the ground where the bullet ricocheted.

“I would categorize that as an illogical bullet strike,” Voth said. “There’s no apparent reason to fire a shot into a concrete pier.”

Prosecutor Diana Garcia questioned Voth on another of his indicators. Voth said the actions of a shooter after the gun is fired can suggest an unintentional discharge.

“Are you aware that the defendant threw the gun in the water two seconds after firing it?” Garcia asked, suggesting the shooting was intentional.

“Yes,” Voth said.

Outside the courtroom, Ugarte said the eight indicators are meant to be considered together.

“Not one factor is going to be determinative,” Ugarte said. “If you look at all of the factors put together, he concluded that this has the appearance of an unintentional discharge.”

The murder trial is in its third week since opening statements.

In the days since the prosecution rested its case Nov. 2, the defense has called six witnesses to the stand including a video enhancement expert who showed jurors surveillance footage of a group of individuals gathered where Garcia Zarate claims to have found the gun.

The defense argues that the group could have dropped the stolen gun there before Garcia Zarate arrived, setting him up for the accidental shooting.

The prosecution has suggested that Garcia Zarate walked onto the pier with the gun in his pocket.

The gun belonged to a federal ranger who was visiting San Francisco four days before the shooting when someone stole the weapon from his vehicle. But Garcia Zarate is not charged with auto burglary.

Garcia Zarate is facing second-degree murder, assault with a deadly weapon and felon in possession of a firearm charges.

“Under the law, an accident is a complete defense to a criminal charge,” Ugarte said. “If there is reasonable doubt that a crime was committed, that this was accidental, then he would be acquitted on all charges.”

The defense is slated to call their final witness Thursday. Ugarte said Garcia Zarate is not expected to testify.

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