A San Francisco police firearms specialist testified Monday that 32-year-old Kate Steinle’s shooter aimed the barrel of a gun in her direction and pulled the trigger, casting doubt on claims that the highly contentious killing was accidental.
John Evans, a retired police inspector who investigated the Steinle case, made claims in court that fly in the face of arguments from defense attorney Matt Gonzalez, who has said that her death was the result of a “freakish ricochet.”
The retired inspector said that the bullet traveled in a straight line from the barrel of the gun to Steinle’s back despite skipping off the ground of Pier 14, leaving a divot in the concrete.
Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, an undocumented Mexican citizen who is also known as Juan Francisco Lopez Sanchez, is charged with second-degree murder for allegedly firing the gun intentionally on July 1, 2015.
“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.”
“When individuals are pressed for time, also when they are not particularly well-trained, they have the tendency to jerk the trigger, which causes the gun to point lower, causing exactly this kind of shot, known as a ‘skip shot,’” Evans continued.
But Gonzalez has argued that the handgun discharged on accident when Garcia Zarate found the weapon wrapped in clothing on the pier and lifted it. He called Evans’ claims “wild speculation.”
“This is like junk science,” Gonzalez said in court at one point.
Gonzalez pointed out that Evans tried to trace the path of the bullet with only one fixed point — the divot on the ground where the bullet ricocheted — when bullet trajectory analysis requires at least two fixed points.
Evans only knew the precise point where the bullet hit the ground, not where the barrel of the gun was when Garcia Zarate allegedly fired the round while sitting on a swivel chair on the pier.
Investigators also did not know where Steinle was standing but approximated her position from the blood stain and clothing she left behind.
That means for Gonzalez that the bullet could have ricocheted in another direction than it left the barrel as opposed to the straight line that Evans drew between the general area where Garcia Zarate was seated and Steinle was standing.
According to Gonzalez, that means the bullet could have ricocheted in a direction other than the straight line that Evans drew between the general area where Garcia Zarate was seated and Steinle was standing.
Gonzalez said he will call an expert witness to testify that the bullet could have bounced horizontally once it struck the ground.
“You can draw a straight line between any two points,” Gonzalez told reporters outside the courtroom. “Unless my accident theory is not reasonable, the jury must adopt the interpretation that favors the defendant. That’s what circumstantial evidence is all about.”
Gonzalez also tried to establish that the gun could have gone off accidentally when Garcia Zarate picked it up. The alleged murder weapon, a Sig Sauer P239, was stolen from the car of a Bureau of Land Management ranger days before in San Francisco.
The San Francisco Police Department, which issues Sig Sauer handguns to officers as their primary weapons, reported 29 accidental discharges between 2005 and 2011, according to Gonzalez.
“I’m not saying it’s impossible, I’m saying in the vast majority of cases, the way to make a weapon fire is to hold it and pull the trigger,” Evans said.
But after Gonzalez accused him of guessing as to whether Garcia Zarate intended to pull the trigger, Evans said, “I cannot say that it was an accident or not.”
The testimony came after two other witnesses briefly took the stand in the morning.
Officer Glenn Juco said in court that he transported the alleged murder weapon to the police crime lab after police divers recovered it from the San Francisco Bay.
Garcia Zarate is accused of throwing the pistol off the pier after the shooting, and surveillance video previously shown in court captured a splash in the water.
Witness Lisa Strick, an innovation consultant, also testified that she saw the suspect run away after the shooting, but video and previous testimony have shown that Garcia Zarate walked off the pier.
Read more criminal justice news on the Crime Ink page in print. Follow us on Twitter: @sfcrimeink