Murder trial nears end in the controversial killing of Kate Steinle

A man is crawling over concrete boulders at the bottom of the San Francisco Bay.

Crumbled piers from another era send rebar jutting in his direction. It is nearly pitch black when his hand slips into a crevice and his fingers graze a slender piece of silt-covered metal.

The diver pulls out the heavy metal object and presses it against his face. But the water is too murky for him to see. He climbs onto a boulder and reaches his arm out toward the surface, hoping the metal will catch some light.

Scott Hurley, a San Francisco police diver, is holding a gun in his hand.

Hurley has just found the pistol used to kill Kate Steinle, 32, on July 1, 2015. The weapon is a crucial piece of evidence in the trial of Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, an undocumented immigrant who admitted to firing a single bullet that ricocheted off the ground and fatally struck Steinle in the back on Pier 14.

As the murder trial wraps up in San Francisco Superior Court, jurors must decide whether Garcia Zarate intended to pull the trigger or fired the gun on accident. A second-degree murder conviction hinges on the decision.

In the first two weeks of the trial, prosecutor Diana Garcia presented a case against Garcia Zarate that includes eyewitnesses, surveillance footage of the killing and his confession to police during an interrogation after the shooting.

But defense attorneys casted doubt on Garcia’s case in the third week of the trial, presenting counter evidence to suggest the shooting was an accident that resulted from a “freakish ricochet.”

Kate Steinle, 32, was fatally shot on Pier 14 in San Francisco on July 1, 2015. (Courtesy photo)

The defense has built a case around the fact that Garcia Zarate told police right after the shooting that the gun went off when he found it wrapped in a rag on the pier.

“We’re very satisfied with how the evidence has been presented to the jury,” Matt Gonzalez, an attorney for Garcia Zarate, said Thursday when the defense rested its case. “We’ve covered a lot of ground. This jury has been very attentive. We’re ready to argue the case, and the jury will have to make a decision ultimately.”

The killing contributed to the anti-immigrant fervor that spread across the nation as President Donald Trump called for a crackdown on sanctuary cities.

Rather than hand Garcia Zarate to immigration authorities, the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department released Garcia Zarate from jail three months before the shooting when prosecutors dismissed a 20-year-old marijuana case against him.

But Judge Samuel K. Feng told jurors from the outset that Garcia Zarate’s immigration status would have no weight in the trial. His history of non-violent drug convictions and five deportations have not been at play.

Bureau of Land Management Ranger John Woychowski is shielded from view by sheriffs as he enters the courtroom at the Hall of Justice in San Francisco on the fourth day of trial in the case against Jose Ines Garcia Zarate on Oct. 26. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

For jurors, the story begins on the Saturday before the shooting, when a federal ranger named John William Woychowski, Jr. stopped in San Francisco with his family for a late dinner.

Woychowski, a Bureau of Land Management ranger stationed near the border of the U.S. and Mexico, was on the way to a 14-day work detail in Helena, Mont., when he parked his luxury sports utility vehicle near Pier 5.

Woychowski tucked a backpack containing a Sig Sauer P239 handgun beneath the driver’s seat before heading to a restaurant in the area. He carried the gun as a secondary weapon while patrolling 1.4 million acres of public land southeast of San Diego near the border with Mexicali.

Woychowski thought the area looked safe, but he was wrong.

When he returned to the 2015 Buick Enclave an hour and a half later, someone had smashed his windows and stolen his backpack. The gun was gone.

The auto burglary has never been solved, but Garcia Zarate is not accused of the crime. Woychowski did not face discipline for leaving his weapon unsecured, though defense attorneys argue that he is culpable in the killing.

Eyewitness Michelle Lo is questioned by defense attorney Matt Gonzalez on Oct. 24 as Lo testifies that she saw Jose Ines Garcia Zarate “grinning” and spinning in a chair as Kate Steinle walked down the pier with her father. (Vicki Behringer/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Four days later, on a breezy summer evening in San Francisco, Garcia Zarate spun around on a swiveling chair anchored to Pier 14. He was dressed in an oversized black coat and two layers of pants that kept him warm at night. He wore just one sock, and only one of his shoes had laces.

Fishermen cast their lines into the San Francisco Bay, and tourists took photographs of each other with the Bay Bridge in the background.

One of those tourists, Michelle Lo, inadvertently captured an image of Garcia Zarate sitting on the metallic chair as Steinle walked down the pier with her father and a family friend.

“He was just looking at the people and turning ’round and ’round in that chair,” Lo said in court Oct. 24. “I saw him grinning.”

Steinle walked by Garcia Zarate with a family friend and her father, James Steinle, who had taken a BART train from Pleasanton to visit his daughter in San Francisco that day.

They were walking toward the Bay when James Steinle heard a loud bang, and his daughter fell to the ground.

He fell with her. Someone screamed for help. His daughter bled onto the pier.

Across the street, Aryn Carpenter and Maria Moreno heard the gunshot from their suite at the Hotel Griffon. Both of them ran to look out the window and noticed a man dressed in nearly all black leaving the pier. The breeze inflamed his jacket, showing the letters “CALI” on his shirt.

“He seemed to be the only person trying to leave the pier,” Carpenter said in court Oct. 24. “It looked like he was behaving odd … it did not instinctually feel right to me.”
Carpenter and Moreno took photographs of Garcia Zarate and showed them to police who arrived at the scene. The pictures show Garcia Zarate walking off the pier and onto The Embarcadero.

None of the witnesses saw Garcia Zarate fire the gun, but the witnesses placed him at the scene before and after the shooting.

Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, right, is lead into the courtroom by San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi, left, and Assistant District Attorney Diana Garcia for arraignment on July 7, 2015. (Michael Macor/2015 San Francisco Chronicle via Pool)

The prosecution and defense have two interpretations of what happened.

The prosecution aims to prove that Garcia Zarate walked onto the pier with the pistol in his pocket and intentionally pulled the trigger, killing Steinle when the bullet skipped in a straight line and struck her in the back.

The defense claims the gun went off on accident when Garcia Zarate found it wrapped in a rag near his seat on the pier. Defense attorneys speculate that a group of unidentified individuals could have left the stolen gun at the seat before Garcia Zarate arrived.

The defense has painted Garcia Zarate as the type of person who would pick up an object off the ground that others would pass by. Garcia Zarate was homeless and collected bottles and cans for a living at the time of the shooting.

Lt. Anthony Ravano, the lead homicide investigator in the case, showed jurors Nov. 2 that Garcia Zarate could have fit the gun in the pockets of the oversized clothing he wore the day of the shooting.

In the early morning hours of July 2, 2015, homicide investigators grilled Garcia Zarate about the shooting in an interrogation room at the Hall of Justice.

Garcia Zarate admitted to firing the gun during the interrogation, but he also made contradictory and confusing statements that defense attorneys have used to discredit the confession.

Garcia Zarate told police the gun went off when he stepped on it. He also said he was born in 1863, and was aiming the gun at sea animals.

Officer Martin Covarrubias acted as an interpreter for Sgt. Chris Canning and Ravano during the interrogation, asking their questions to Garcia Zarate in Spanish.

Defense attorneys showed jurors Thursday that Covarrubias incorrectly translated some of the questions. When Ravano asked Garcia Zarate if he pulled the trigger, Covarrubias asked him if he fired the gun.

Garcia Zarate said “yes.”

The prosecution is trying to prove that Garcia Zarate intended to pull the trigger.

John Evans, a retired crime scene investigator, testified Oct. 30 that the bullet that killed Kate Steinle ricocheted in a straight line. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

The bullet that struck Steinle ricocheted 12 feet away from the chair where Garcia Zarate was sitting and tumbled end-over-end for another 78 feet before it hit her in the lower back.

Prosecutors called John Evans, a retired crime scene investigator who worked the case, to the stand Oct. 30. Evans testified that the bullet ricocheted in a straight line, suggesting that Garcia Zarate fired the gun in Steinle’s direction.

But the defense called two firearms experts who questioned whether the shooting was intentional.

On Monday, former SFPD crime lab head James Norris testified that the bullet bounced in Steinle’s direction by chance and cast doubt on whether it traveled in a straight line.

On Wednesday, a Canadian firearms expert named Alan Voth testified the shooting was likely an unintentional discharge since only one shot was fired and the bullet ricocheted off the ground.

But Garcia pointed out to Voth that Garcia Zarate threw the gun off the pier two seconds after the shooting, suggesting that his behavior indicated an intentional shooting.

When police arrested Garcia Zarate along The Embarcadero shortly after the shooting, an officer collected gunshot residue from his hand.

Linda Abuan, a criminalist at the San Francisco police crime lab, testified Oct. 26 that she tested the sample and detected a single particle of gunshot residue on one of Garcia Zarate’s hands.

Norris, a witness for the defense, testified that the particle could have been transferred onto Garcia Zarate’s hand from a patrol car or an officer since police only found a single particle.

Defense attorney Matt Gonzalez speaks outside the courtroom on Oct. 23. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

Defense attorneys have gone to great lengths to try and convince jurors that the gun has a light trigger pull that could have been snagged when Garcia Zarate purportedly found the gun wrapped in clothing on the pier.

Gerald Andrew Smith, a supervising criminalist at the San Francisco crime lab, testified Oct. 31 that he tested the trigger pull on the gun and found it took between 4.8 and 5.5 pounds of pressure to pull in single-action mode compared to between 9 and 9.8 pounds of pressure in double-action mode.

Norris tested the trigger pull for the defense and recorded slightly lower readings. He testified that the gun could be fired with as little as 4 pounds of pressure in single-action mode.

It’s unclear what mode the gun was in when the bullet discharged and struck Steinle.

From a quarter-mile away, a surveillance camera captured the moment that Steinle fell to the ground with a bullet in her back and Garcia Zarate threw the gun in the water, according to the prosecution.

The camera at the Pier 23 ½ fireboat dock shows Garcia Zarate and Steinle as small figures on Pier 14.

Officer Craig Dong, who recovered surveillance footage of the killing from the Port of San Francisco, testified Oct. 25 that the footage also shows a splash in the water off as Garcia Zarate walks away.

The footage helped police locate the weapon that Hurley found at the bottom of the San Francisco Bay.

Smith, the SFPD criminalist, said in court that the gun matched the bullet pulled from Steinle’s body during an autopsy after the shooting.

The surveillance footage has also been useful for defense attorneys.

A surveillance image shows a group of unidentified people gathered around a chair on Pier 14, where Jose Ines Garcia Zarate claims to have found the gun used to kill Kate Steinle on July 1, 2015. (Courtesy San Francisco Public Defender’s Office)

On Wednesday, defense attorneys showed jurors another part of the surveillance footage that showed a group of people gathered around the chair where they say Garcia Zarate found the gun.

The attorneys speculate that the unidentified individuals could have left the stolen gun on the pier.

A video enhancement expert named Paul Endo testified Wednesday that the group could be seen bending down and picking up objects in the video. They gathered there for about 30 minutes and left half an hour before Garcia Zarate arrived.

Garcia suggested during cross-examination that there is no evidence to indicate the group dropped a stolen gun.

Endo also said that Garcia Zarate could be seen in the video bending over moments before the shooting. Defense attorneys said that corroborated their argument that Garcia Zarate found the gun near his seat.

James Steinle and Elizabeth Sullivan, parents of Kate Steinle, enter the courtroom on Oct. 30. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

Garcia Zarate is facing felony charges of second-degree murder, assault with a semi-automatic firearm and being a felon in possession of a firearm.

On Monday, the prosecution is expected to call at least one more witness to the stand as a rebuttal to the defense.

Closing arguments in the trial are scheduled for Nov. 20.