Verdict Shocking — And Fair

December 5, 2017 GMT

The family of Kate Steinle chose not to be in court on the day jurors rendered their verdict in the case of the undocumented Mexican immigrant who was accused in her death. In a decision many found shocking, Jose Inez Garcia Zarate was acquitted of all but the least serious charge. Who could blame them for not wanting to be part of the spectacle? At their moment of greatest pain, the family had been forced into an unwelcome spotlight by candidate Donald Trump. The death of 32-year-old Steinle, Trump said repeatedly, was the fault of San Francisco’s sanctuary city policy. It demonstrated the urgency of building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. “This senseless and totally preventable act of violence committed by an illegal immigrant is yet another example of why we must secure our border immediately,” Trump said after Steinle was killed in July 2015. “This is a ... disgraceful situation, and I am the only one that can fix it.” Friday, the White House press secretary echoed her boss: “Kate Steinle was killed by an illegal immigrant and convicted felon who had been deported ... five times,” she said. “He, and ... criminal illegal immigrants like him, should never be allowed to threaten our citizens.” The politicization of Steinle’s death and her killer’s acquittal has been unfair to her grieving family. “We somehow or another amazingly got caught up in immigration, and Trump,” Kate’s father, Jim Steinle, said. “We have our views on immigration and we have our view on Trump. But this is the death of my daughter.” Thursday, a San Francisco jury found Garcia Zarate, 45, not guilty of murder or manslaughter. It found him guilty of being a felon in possession of a gun, a count that can carry a sentence of three years in state prison, two years of which he has served. Garcia Zarate’s public defenders argued that he found a loaded gun, stolen four days earlier from the locked car of a federal Bureau of Land Management ranger, and accidentally fired it. They said the bullet struck the pavement before ricocheting 80 feet, striking Steinle in the back. Jurors, to their credit, put aside the political noise and judged the case on facts. They decided that the death of Kate Steinle, a young woman who deserved a long, full life, was an accident. I believe the verdict was just. In October, I attended the opening arguments. I thought then, and still do, that the ranger who left his loaded gun in a part of San Francisco where parked cars are frequently targeted by thieves bears some responsibility for the chain of events. Many outraged readers told me they had no doubt that Garcia Zarate had stolen the weapon, even though prosecutors and police said they had no information that he did. Perhaps they had heard that House Speaker Paul Ryan wrongly claimed that Garcia Zarate had stolen the gun, and fired it multiple times, when he proposed “Kate’s Law” to stiffen penalties for immigrants crossing into the U.S. illegally. In November, the defense presented a grainy video that captured the shooting and what occurred on Pier 14 the hour before. Half an hour before Steinle was shot, six people could be seen huddling around a swiveling metal chair. For 30 minutes, they repeatedly bent down “setting down and then picking up blurry objects,” said KQED reporter Alex Emslie. Half an hour later, Garcia Zarate sat down in the chair. The footage showed him reaching down. Moments later, a bullet pierced Steinle’s heart. The verdict, said Jim Steinle, was sad and shocking. “Justice was rendered,” he told the Chronicle, “but it was not served.” The dignity and restraint of this family is remarkable. They have never been out for vengeance. And they are not even opposed to the idea of sanctuary cities. They are angry that federal officials returned Garcia Zarate to San Francisco in 2015 to face a 20-year-old marijuana charge when they could have deported him. The feds were aware of San Francisco’s “sanctuary” policy, in which its sheriff refused to communicate with immigration authorities. The Steinles are suing the federal government for negligence in connection with the theft of the ranger’s gun. They wanted to sue San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi for failing to hand Garcia Zarate over to immigration, but a judge tossed that part of their case. The city now honor a federal detainer request if the detainee has committed a violent or serious felony in the last seven years. That would not have affected the release of Garcia Zarate, who will be deported — rightfully so — once he serves his term. “Nothing has happened,” Jim Steinle told the Chronicle. “Nothing has changed. Except Kate’s not here.” ROBIN ABCARIAN writes for the Los Angeles Times.