Jose Ines Garcia Zarate (Michael Macor/San Francisco Chronicle via AP, Pool)

Jose Ines Garcia Zarate (Michael Macor/San Francisco Chronicle via AP, Pool)

Judge mulls Kate Steinle shooter’s competency to stand trial

A federal judge heard testimony Friday over whether the undocumented man who shot and killed Kate Steinle is competent to stand trial over an incident that captured national attention during the 2016 presidential election.

Jose Ines Garcia Zarate has been incarcerated at various facilities in the five years since he fired a bullet that ricocheted off Pier 14 and fatally struck Steinle in the back on July 1, 2015, setting off a political firestorm.

“I’m tired of waiting here,” Garcia Zarate told the court Friday through a Spanish interpreter. He said he wanted to be sentenced to prison or deported from the U.S. to Mexico. “I believe that I’ve spent too much time here.”

Garcia Zarate’s case has been in limbo since U.S. District Court Judge Vince Chhabria raised “serious concerns” about his mental capacities back in January when he was supposed to stand trial on federal gun charges.

Two doctors have since diagnosed Garcia Zarate with schizophrenia and found he is unfit to stand trial since his condition makes it hard for him to understand court proceedings.

During testimony Friday, both doctors said Garcia Zarate is unable to answer open-ended questions coherently.

Dr. Samantha Shelton, a forensic psychologist with the U.S. Bureau of Prisons based on Los Angeles, said Garcia Zarate has a history of believing electronics are broadcasting messages to him or other inmates.

“He discussed inmates being placed in spoons, he tended to ruminate on this idea of immigration and being here ‘illegally,’” Shelton said.

Paul Elizondo, a child psychiatrist who works at a Marin County juvenile hall clinic, said Garcia Zarate displayed signs of paranoia and would likely have trouble trusting his defense attorney if sent to trial.

“He stated he believed his defense attorney was accepting bribes from the police,” Elizondo said.

Garcia Zarate’s defense attorneys requested the hearing to challenge the competency findings. If he is determined to be unfit to stand trial, Garcia Zarate could be committed to a treatment facility until he is restored.

When Elizondo said medication could help Garcia Zarate, his defense attorney Tony Serra said his client has resisted taking medication for a number of years.

“What makes you think it would change now?” Serra asked. “What’s different now than in all those years where he has failed to obey and take his medicine?”

Serra said Garcia Zarate would not be restored through medication unless he is forced to take it against his will, such as through a hyperdermic needle, as has been done in the past.

During a break in the hearing, Serra said Garcia Zarate “very forcefully” told him “he wants another lawyer and he wants me out.”

Garcia Zarate has also said he wants to plead guilty.

Chhabria told Garcia Zarate he would not be allowed to plead guilty on Friday.

“The first thing I have to do is decide whether or not you are competent,” Chhabria said.

Garcia Zarate is facing federal gun charges after a San Francisco Superior Court jury acquitted him of various charges including murder in late 2017.

His defense attorneys in the state case had argued he unknowingly picked up a gun on the pier and fired it on accident.

An appeals court later overturned the only conviction prosecutors obtained against him in the state case for being a felon in possession of a firearm.

Garcia Zarate was expected to testify before Chhabria behind closed doors Friday afternoon.

mbarba@sfexaminer.com

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