In this July 7, 2015 file photo, Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, right, is led into the courtroom by San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi, left, and Assistant District Attorney Diana Garciaor, center, for his arraignment at the Hall of Justice in San Francisco. (Michael Macor/San Francisco Chronicle via AP, Pool, File)

U.S. Supreme Court ruling clears way for feds to prosecute Garcia-Zarate

New trial date likely to be set for undocumented man acquitted in killing of Kate Steinle

The long-delayed federal gun case against an undocumented immigrant at the center of a national controversy over the killing of 32-year-old Kate Steinle is expected to move forward on the heels of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

In a 7-2 decision Monday, the Supreme Court upheld an exception to the U.S. Constitution, which says that no one shall be tried twice for the same crime. The exception allows both the state and the federal government to charge a person over a single incident as “separate sovereigns.”

The decision clears the way for the U.S. Attorney’s Office to prosecute Jose Ines Garcia-Zarate on gun charges stemming from the day the 46-year-old Mexican national fired a bullet that ricocheted off a San Francisco pier and killed Steinle nearly four years ago on July 1, 2015.

A federal court judge in San Francisco postponed the trial of Garcia-Zarate last August after the Supreme Court agreed to hear a challenge to the exception to the “double jeopardy” rule from an Alabama man who had been charged by federal and state prosecutors for the same crime.

Jurors in San Francisco Superior Court had already acquitted Garcia-Zarate of murder and manslaughter by the time the U.S. Attorney’s Office charged him in December 2017. The jury had also convicted him of illegal gun possession.

The federal trial was set to begin in October 2018, but U.S. District Court Judge Vince Chhabria recognized that a conviction against Garcia-Zarate could be overturned if the Supreme Court changed the double jeopardy rule.

“There is a serious possibility that the Supreme Court’s ruling in that case will require dismissal of the charges against Garcia-Zarate,” Chhabria wrote at the time. “The ends of justice served by continuing the trial outweigh any interest in proceeding to trial immediately.”

Chhabria continued the trial to until after the Supreme Court made a ruling.

The decision Monday centered around the case of Terance Gamble, who pled guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm in Alabama state court before being indicted and convicted for the same crime under federal law.

Justice Samuel Alito Jr. said in an opinion on behalf of the court that, “We have long held that a crime under one sovereign’s law is not ‘the same offence’ as a crime under the laws of another sovereign.”

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Neil Gorsuch each filed dissenting opinions.

“A free society does not allow its government to try the same individual for the same crime until it’s happy with the result,” Gorsuch wrote.

A date has not been set for the Garcia-Zarate case to return to the courtroom.

Tony Serra, a defense attorney for Garcia-Zarate, sought to postpone the trial last year. His office could not be reached Tuesday.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office argued that postponing the trial would cause the memories of witnesses to fade. A spokesperson for the office did not return a request for comment Tuesday.

Garcia-Zarate remains in custody.

As for his gun conviction in state court, he has filed an appeal that is currently pending.

Tribune News Service contributed to this report.

mbarba@sfexaminer.com

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