Jose Ines Garcia Zarate was acquitted of murder in the fatal July 1, 2015 shooting of Kate Steinle after his attorneys argued he had fired the gun accidentally. (Michael Macor/San Francisco Chronicle via AP, Pool, File)

SF prosecutors ‘step aside’ as federal case moves to trial in Kate Steinle shooting

A years-long legal battle that garnered the attention of President Donald Trump officially ended Wednesday when San Francisco prosecutors declined to retry the undocumented immigrant who fatally shot Kate Steinle.

The District Attorney’s Office could have moved forward with a second trial against Jose Ines Garcia Zarate for allegedly being a felon in possession of a firearm, but dismissed the case since he has already served the maximum possible sentence for the charge.

Garcia Zarate is also currently in custody awaiting trial in federal court next month for similar gun charges stemming from the same incident.

“We make these decisions very methodically,” said District Attorney’s Office spokesperson Alex Bastian. “The federal government has indicted Garcia Zarate based on the same underlying conduct. As a result, we are going to step aside and let the case go to federal court.”

The decision marks an end to the San Francisco Superior Court case that began when Garcia Zarate fired a bullet that ricocheted off Pier 14 and struck Steinle as she walked with her father on July 1, 2015.

Trump seized on the case during the 2016 presidential election, using Garcia Zarate’s history of being deported five times to call for stricter immigration controls.

Then in November 2017, Garcia Zarate was acquitted of murder, manslaughter and assault charges after his attorneys argued that he shot Steinle on accident. The jury only found him guilty of being a felon in possession of a firearm.

But in August, a California appeals court overturned that gun conviction, finding that the jury was not properly instructed on a legal defense that says felons can momentarily possess a firearm if only to dispose of it.

Defense attorneys had argued that Garcia Zarate found the gun wrapped in a rag beneath his seat on the pier and immediately threw the weapon into the San Francisco Bay after it suddenly went off.

“The allegation that Garcia Zarate had murdered somebody was an integral part of Donald Trump becoming president,” said Matt Gonzalez, an attorney for Garcia Zarate and chief attorney for the Public Defender’s Office. “A lot has transpired because of the ability to [defer] to a narrative about this case which is now known to be false.”

A federal court jury will now have to decide whether Garcia Zarate should be convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm and being an “alien” in possession of a firearm. The U.S. Attorney’s Office obtained an indictment against Garcia Zarate after the verdict in state court.

The federal trial is scheduled to begin next month.

Attorney Francisco Ugarte, who also represented Garcia Zarate, said the Trump administration “thirsts” for Garcia Zarate to be prosecuted again because “he happens to be an undocumented Mexican immigrant.”

“We are absolutely convinced that a jury will see through the politicized prosecution and find him not guilty of this offense,” Ugarte said.

mbarba@sfexaminer.com

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