Matt Gonzalez of the Public Defender's Office holds interviews outside the courtroom during a recess at the Hall of Justice in San Francisco, Calif. Monday, October 23, 2017. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

Defense attorney pins Kate Steinle killing on ‘freakish ricochet,’ prosecutor claims shooting was intentional

An attorney for the undocumented homeless man accused of killing a woman in San Francisco claimed on Monday the defendant found the gun on the pier before it “accidentally” went off.

Matt Gonzalez, an attorney for the man who allegedly killed 32-year-old Kate Steinle two years ago, showed previously unreleased surveillance footage in court that he said shows the defendant bending over in a chair on the pier moments before Steinle was shot.

Gonzalez suggested that defendant Jose Ines Garcia Zarate found the gun wrapped up and possibly leaning against the chair when he lifted the bundle, causing the firearm to discharge.

SEE RELATED: Prosecutor in Steinle trial claims undocumented immigrant ‘intentionally’ fired gun

Only by a “freakish ricochet” off the ground did the bullet spiral toward Steinle and fatally strike her in the back, fueling a national debate on illegal immigration that resonated on the campaign trail of now-President Donald Trump.

“If this had happened to a college kid or a Swedish tourist,” Gonzalez asked the jury, “would they be charged with murder?”

Gonzalez released the new surveillance footage during opening statements Monday in a court day that also included the emotional testimony of James Steinle, the victim’s father.

James Steinle’s lip quivered as he recalled the events of July 1, 2015, when he and a family friend walked the Embarcadero with his daughter. He paused when prosecutor Diana Garcia asked how often he spoke with his daughter.

“Often,” he said.

The prosecutor showed the court selfies that Steinle took with her father and family friend on the pier as the group stopped to look at birds and boats.

Then James Steinle recalled the seconds after the bullet entered her lower back.

“Kate couldn’t talk and her eyes were closed,” he said. “I couldn’t tell what had happened. We lifted up the back of her blouse and [saw] the bullet hole there.”

James Steinle said it “was quite odd” because she wasn’t bleeding.

“I knew it wasn’t a good sign,” he said.

Garcia had started the day claiming in her opening statement that the defendant intended to fire the pistol toward a crowd on the pier.

“This is the gun that this man charged before you fired at a young woman named Kathryn Steinle,” Garcia claimed, holding up the semi-automatic pistol for the jury to see. “She’s dead because this man, this defendant… pointed this gun in her direction and pulled the trigger.”

James Steinle stared straight ahead when he testified Monday, refusing to look at the defendant who sat in the courtroom between his attorneys.

Garcia Zarate, who is more commonly known as Juan Francisco Lopez Sanchez, turned 45 last Thursday, his attorney said.

When he was released from jail in April 2015 he wandered the Embarcadero, collected cans and accepted food from strangers eating near the waterfront.

Gonzalez suggested that a group of people may have left the gun on the pier the day that Garcia Zarate allegedly found it.

“He is precisely the person that might look at or investigate a discarded object on the ground,” Gonzalez said.

The surveillance footage he played jurors purportedly shows a group of people gathered around the chair on the pier just 30 minutes before Garcia Zarate sat there.

“It was an accident waiting to happen,” Gonzalez said.

Police have never solved the auto burglary that led to the killing.

The gun was stolen from a Bureau of Land Management ranger who left the weapon in a backpack underneath his seat June 27 when someone busted the window of his car across the street from Pier 5.

“But for his negligence, we would not be here,” Gonzalez said of the BLM ranger. “He set off a chain of events that led to Kate Steinle’s death.”

When police arrested Garcia Zarate, he had crackers and cigarette butts in his pockets.

Gonzalez said the police crime lab later detected just one particle of gunshot residue on his hand but 18,000 particles from crackers.

Gonzalez suggested that meant Garcia Zarate was not holding the gun but that it went off while wrapped in clothing.

But Garcia contended the shooting was intentional despite the ricocheted bullet. She said a so-called skip shot is “a phenomenon that happens” when a shooter pulls the trigger before fully aiming at a target.

Garcia even claimed the police academy has taught officers how to perform the shot.

“He went to shoot people on Pier 14 and he ended up killing Kate Steinle,” Garcia said. “He knew all along what he was doing.”

Outside the courtroom, Gonzalez said Garcia was “conceding the biggest factual problem they have, which was the gun that discharged this bullet struck 78-feet away from Kathryn Steinle.”

Gonzalez also stressed that the gun is a secondary weapon for law enforcement officers and has a sensitive trigger meant to be pulled quickly during an emergency.

Garcia, however, told jurors the weapon would not discharge on its own.

“The only way that a bullet will be fired is if the trigger is pulled,” Garcia said. “It’s a very reliable, high-quality gun. It’s not the kind of gun that’s going to go off on accident.”

On Monday, Garcia Zarate sat in the courtroom in a collared shirt, listening to the proceedings through an interpreter in Spanish as he repeatedly tapped the wooden arm of his chair.

The filled gallery behind him included his niece, who lives in San Francisco, and Steinle’s mother.

Michelle Lo, a witness in the case, is scheduled to testify in court Tuesday morning. Lo is believed to have seen Garcia Zarate on the pier around the time of the shooting.

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