Potential jurors exit the courtroom for a recess during jury selection at the Hall of Justice in San Francisco, Calif. Monday, October 16, 2017 related to the trial against Jose Ines Garcia Zarate for the 2015 murder of Kate Steinle. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

Attorneys separate Kate Steinle killing from immigration debate as jury selection begins

Attorneys in the case of an undocumented immigrant accused of killing a woman in San Francisco distanced the case from the nationwide immigration debate on Monday during the first day of jury selection.

More than 100 prospective jurors looked on Monday afternoon as both the prosecutor, who charged Jose Ines Garcia Zarate with murder in the death of Kate Steinle, and the defense attorney in the case said the jury would have to separate the evidence from their opinions on sanctuary cities.

“A lot of you are angry that this has been used to promote a political agenda that you do not agree with,” Assistant District Attorney Diana Garcia said. “I’m here to tell you that will not be part of the case.”

The killing sparked a firestorm of debate around illegal immigration into the country from Mexico.

President Donald Trump pointed to the July 1, 2015 killing during his presidential campaign and congressional Republicans have since championed Kate’s Law, which would increase penalties for undocumented immigrants who enter the country repeatedly.

But Matt Gonzalez, chief attorney with the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, told prospective jurors to take the immigration debate “off the table” and asked questions that would eliminate jurors who were biased on the subject.

“Would anybody be less likely to return a verdict because they knew the president of the U.S. didn’t like it?” Gonzalez asked, eliciting laughter from the prospective jurors in the gallery.

“I don’t believe that this case is about being liberal or conservative or anything like that,” Gonzalez continued. “I’m very confident that I’m going to persuade you to return a not guilty verdict.”

San Francisco Superior Court Judge Samuel K. Feng also told the prospective jurors that immigration laws are “not to be considered” during the trial.

“Mr. Garcia Zarate’s status is not an issue,” Feng said. “It is not to be considered in any way by you.”

Garcia Zarate, a Mexican national who is also known as Juan Francisco Lopez Sanchez, allegedly shot and killed Steinle on Pier 14 after the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department released him from jail.

Listening to the proceeding through a Spanish interpreter, Garcia Zarate sat with his defense team on Monday dressed in a grey collared shirt — a departure from the orange jail garb he normally wears in court.

His defense team holds that the fatal shooting was an accident that happened when the gun Garcia Zarate had on the pier went off.

On Monday, the judge dismissed a dozen of the 267 prospective jurors from the case, though only 153 of them appeared in court because of a lack of seating in the courtroom, according to the Public Defender’s Office.

The court heard two dozen prospective jurors at a time as more than 100 watched.

While the reasons for their dismissals are unknown, the judge excused one person whose brother worked as a police officer at the Hall of Justice and another who described theirself as a “very emotional person.”

Jury selection is expected to continue Tuesday morning. Opening statements in the trial are tentatively scheduled to begin Oct. 23.

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