Jurors in the Kate Steinle murder trial will be able to convict an undocumented homeless man of first-degree murder after prosecutors sought the more serious charge against him, a San Francisco judge decided Wednesday.
Since the beginning of the trial, the prosecution has argued that a Mexican national named Jose Ines Garcia Zarate is guilty of second-degree murder for the death of Steinle, who was struck by a ricocheted bullet on Pier 14 on July 1, 2015.
But San Francisco Superior Court Judge Samuel K. Feng agreed with prosecutor Diana Garcia on Wednesday that jurors should consider first-degree murder as well as second-degree murder during deliberation, according to the District Attorney’s Office.
“The jury will be instructed on multiple theories of homicide,” said Alex Bastian, a spokesperson for the prosecution.
A first-degree murder conviction would mean that Garcia Zarate planned to shoot Steinle, while a second-degree murder charge only requires intention. Jurors will also be instructed on a lesser-included offense of involuntary manslaughter, which is negligence that leads to death.
The central question in the trial is whether Garcia Zarate intentionally aimed the gun in Steinle’s direction and pulled the trigger. The bullet ricocheted 78 feet from the pier into her back, and it is disputed as to whether the bullet travelled in a straight line from the barrel of the gun to Steinle.
The defense has argued the shooting was an accident that happened when Garcia Zarate found the gun wrapped in a rag on the pier.
Francisco Ugarte, an attorney for Garcia Zarate, said an accident is “an absolute defense to anything they might charge, from involuntary manslaughter to first-degree murder.”
“It seems peculiar to us that they are suddenly adding a more aggravated charge despite a single, long distance ricochet shot and a complete lack of evidence of premeditation,” Ugarte said.
The case ignited an immigration debate across the nation when President Donald Trump used the killing to call for a crackdown on sanctuary cities like San Francisco.
However, Garcia Zarate’s immigration status and his release from jail just months before the shooting have not played a role in the trial.
Jurors will also deliberate on felony counts of assault with a semi-automatic firearm and being a felon in possession of a firearm.
Closing arguments in the trial are scheduled to begin Monday morning.