Judge considers sending Kate Steinle’s shooter to facility for mental testing

Concerns over an undocumented immigrant not being competent to stand trial in the shooting of Kate Steinle could soon land him in a federal facility for a weeks-long mental health evaluation.

A federal judge said Wednesday that he is considering sending Jose Ines Garcia Zarate to a facility for further examination after an evaluator found last week that he was incompetent to stand trial because of an untreated mental illness.

The idea would be to determine whether Garcia Zarate could be deemed competent to stand trial if properly medicated. Years ago, an evaluator in an unrelated case diagnosed him with schizophrenia.

Garcia Zarate appears to have been properly medicated while in custody at Glenn Dyer Jail in Oakland, U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria said. But when Alameda County officials moved Garcia Zarate to Santa Rita Jail in Dublin, Chhabria said they “inexplicably they stopped treating him.”

“I’m going to be getting to the bottom of that,” Chhabria said. “I’m developing a real concern about Santa Rita at this point.”

Chhabria has indefinitely delayed Garcia Zarate’s federal trial until the issue is sorted out.

Garcia Zarate is facing two federal charges for allegedly being in possession of a firearm on July 1, 2015, when he fired a bullet that ricocheted off the ground and struck Steinle in the back on Pier 14.

He was acquitted of murder and other charges in state court after defense attorneys argued that he unknowingly picked up a gun wrapped in a rag on the pier and fired it on accident.

The case drew the attention of then-candidate Donald Trump and immigration hard-liners during the 2016 election because Garcia Zarate is an undocumented Mexican national.

Chhabria ordered Garcia Zarate to undergo an initial evaluation on Jan. 10 after becoming concerned that he did not understand the charges against him. Garcia Zarate has previously made puzzling statements, including telling police interrogators that he was aiming at seals.

In federal court on Wednesday, the prosecution and defense both agreed that Garcia Zarate should be evaluated for up to 45 days at a Bureau of Prisons facility in Los Angeles, Seattle or San Diego.

While defense attorney Erica Treeby outright said she planned to dispute the initial finding that Garcia Zarate was incompetent to stand trial, Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Cheng said he was not ready to reach a conclusion on the matter without an additional assessment.

The attorneys had the options of agreeing with the finding — which may have resulted in Garcia Zarate being committed to a facility for a long time — or disputing the finding and proceeding to a lengthy evidentiary hearing.

Cheng suggested the third option of sending Garcia Zarate to a facility for another opinion. He noted that the first evaluator found Garcia Zarate could be “readily restored” to competence if treated with medication.

“On the surface of it, I like the suggestion,” Chhabria said.

Chhabria said he plans to make a ruling on the matter shortly.

mbarba@sfexaminer.com

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