An undocumented homeless man was acquitted of murder and manslaughter charges Thursday in the politically charged death of 32-year-old Kate Steinle on a San Francisco pier two years ago.
A dozen jurors found Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, a 45-year-old Mexican national, not guilty of first-degree murder, second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter for the killing at Pier 14 on July 1, 2015. The jury also acquitted Garcia Zarate of assault with a semi-automatic firearm, but found him guilty of being a felon in possession of a firearm.
The verdict is a win for Matt Gonzalez, an attorney for Garcia Zarate, who argued over nearly five weeks of trial that his client fired the gun on accident. The bullet ricocheted off the ground and struck Steinle in the lower back.
The killing set off an immigration debate when Donald Trump used it to call for a crack down on sanctuary cities during his presidential campaign. San Francisco released Garcia Zarate from County Jail several months before the shooting instead of holding him for federal immigration authorities.
Outside the courtroom, Gonzalez anticipated a reaction on the verdict from Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who are under investigation for ties to Russia.
“There are a number of people who commented on this case in the last couple years, the attorney general of U.S., the president, the vice president of the U.S., Gonzalez said. “Let me just remind them that they are themselves under investigation by a special prosecutor in Washington, D.C.
“They may themselves soon avail themselves of a presumption of innocence beyond a reasonable doubt standard, so I would ask them to reflect on that before they comment or disparage the result in this case,” Gonzalez continued.
Gonzalez’s comments came after a dramatic nearly half-hour in the courtroom late Thursday afternoon. Garcia Zarate entered in a shirt buttoned to the top with a grin on his face and shook hands with the defense team. Jurors walked in with tense faces.
The jury foreperson, a woman, handed the verdict to a sheriff’s deputy who brought the paperwork to Judge Samuel K. Feng.
The courtroom watched in silence as Feng skimmed through the the pages.
The prosecution was not hoping for the verdict that the court clerk then read.
“The jury came back with the verdict that they did,” said Alex Bastian, a spokesperson for the District Attorney’s Office. “ We will respect that decision.”
Prosecutor Diana Garcia painted a sinister picture of the killing during the trial. Garcia told jurors that Garcia Zarate chose Steinle as his victim while playing a secret game of “Russian roulette” on the pier.
For being a felon in possession of a firearm, Feng could sentence Garcia Zarate to six months, 12 months or three years of incarceration. But he has already served more than two years in County Jail since his arrest in July 2015.
It’s unclear whether Garcia Zarate will be deported upon his release, but federal authorities have a warrant out for his arrest. San Francisco does not honor deportation holds from Immigration and Customs Enforcement without a warrant.
Francisco Ugarte, an attorney for Garcia Zarate, said that nothing about his client’s nationality, ethnicity or immigration status “had any relevance as to what happened on July 1, 2015.”
“This case was used as a means to foment hate, to foment division and to foment a program of mass deportation,” Ugarte said. “It was used to catapult a presidency along that philosophy of hate for others, and I believe that today is a vindication for the rights of immigrants.”
Sessions released a statement after the verdict, again blaming the killing on San Francisco’s sanctuary city policies.
“The Department of Justice will continue to ensure that all jurisdictions place the safety and security of their communities above the convenience of criminal aliens,” Sessions said. “I urge the leaders of the nation’s communities to reflect on the outcome of this case and consider carefully the harm they are doing to their citizens by refusing to cooperate with federal law enforcement officers.”
Trump also responded to the verdict on Twitter on Thursday evening.
“A disgraceful verdict in the Kate Steinle case! No wonder the people of our Country are so angry with Illegal Immigration,” Trump wrote.
A disgraceful verdict in the Kate Steinle case! No wonder the people of our Country are so angry with Illegal Immigration.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 1, 2017
During the trial, Gonzalez pressed the jury to find Garcia Zarate not guilty of all charges. Gonzalez told jurors that Garcia Zarate unknowingly fired the gun when he found it wrapped in a rag on the pier.
Gonzalez cast doubt on whether the bullet traveled in a straight line from the barrel of the gun to Steinle’s back after ricocheting off the ground.
Public Defender Jeff Adachi said Trump wrongly told the country that the shooting was intentional.
“There was a tremendous amount of misinformation that was spread about this case from day one,” Adachi said. “The challenge of the defense was that they had to present the evidence, not only to the jury but also to the community.”
The families of Garcia Zarate and Steinle, who sporadically attended the trial, were not in the courtroom for the verdict.
“This really is about the Steinle family,” Bastian said. “They’ve shown incredible resolve, and our hearts go out to them.”
A status update in the case is scheduled for Dec. 14.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include additional information.