The bullet that tumbled end-over-end into the back of Kate Steinle ricocheted in her direction by chance, the first witness for the defense testified Monday in the murder trial that ignited a nationwide debate on immigration.
The defense called the former head of forensics for the San Francisco Police Department to the stand in the trial of Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, an undocumented Mexican national accused of the July 2015 killing on Pier 14.
James Norris, a forensic science consultant and firearms expert, cast doubt on whether the bullet traveled in a straight line from the barrel of the gun into Steinle’s back as a retired police inspector for the prosecution testified last week.
The trial, which has drawn the attention of President Donald Trump as he calls for a crackdown on sanctuary cities, depends on whether prosecutor Diana Garcia can prove Garcia Zarate intended to pull the trigger in Steinle’s direction.
“Depending on just chance, it’s going to move around in the air,” Norris said, describing the path of the bullet after it ricocheted off the pier.
The bullet ricocheted 12 feet away from where Garcia Zarate was sitting on the pier and bounced some 78 feet down the pier before striking Steinle in the back.
“If your desire is to injure someone, that’s not a high probability way to do it,” Norris said. “Only one shot was fired at some distance. If someone was intentionally trying to shoot somebody at that distance, you would think that they would continue to shoot.”
Matt Gonzalez, an attorney for Garcia Zarate, said Norris’ testimony showed the shooting was consistent with an accident and threatened the prosecution’s argument that Garcia Zarate landed a “purposeful shot” on Steinle.
“He’s trying to explain that this bullet is going to travel in a direction almost by chance after it strikes the concrete,” Gonzalez told reporters. “This notion that the bullet stays straight is not credible science.”
John Evans, a retired police inspector who worked the case, testified as a witness for the prosecution last week that the bullet traveled in a straight line.
“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 Oct. 30. “That is the only way that this could have occurred that is reasonable.”
But Norris said that a bullet loses accuracy and begins to “move erratically” as soon as it strikes the ground. He said a ricocheted bullet also has a tendency to veer slightly in the direction that it was spinning when it left the barrel.
Gonzalez has argued that Garcia Zarate discharged the gun on accident when he found it on the pier wrapped in a rag.
Police later collected just one particle of gunshot residue on Garcia Zarate’s hand. The police crime lab returned a positive finding for gunshot residue on Garcia Zarate because of the particle.
“Most laboratories will report one particle as negative because there’s a great possibility of contamination,” Norris said.
Norris testified that the particle could have been transferred from a police officer or the back of a patrol car. He said the single particle is also consistent with a rag being wrapped around the gun.
Gonzalez is expected to call a video surveillance expert to the stand Tuesday. Police collected video footage from a quarter mile away that Gonzalez says shows Garcia Zarate bending over in a chair on the pier but not pointing a gun.
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