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Sad, Shocking, and Predictable: The Kate Steinle Murder Trial You Didn't See

"Honestly," said the accused killer's attorney, "this case shouldn't have been charged."

 

At 4:15 Thursday afternoon, onlookers inside Department 13 of the San Francisco Hall of Justice stood as jurors in the murder case of Kate Steinle filed into the courtroom one final time. The forewoman of the jury handed Judge Samuel Feng its verdict. With the courtroom in total silence, the judge spent a solid two minutes flipping through the stack of papers, his expression giving nothing away. And then, abruptly, he chirped "Okay!," tapped the papers on his desk twice, and called on his clerk to read the charges.

The jurors stared straight ahead as the verdict in Case No. 15014736 was read out loud. In the charge of murder in the first degree—"the murder of Kathryn Steinle, a human being"—the accused, Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, was found not guilty. In the charge of murder in the second degree: Not guilty. In the charge of involuntary manslaughter: Not guilty. In the end, Garcia Zarate, the man who ignited a national firestorm and may well have helped a nationalist, xenophobic, right-wing demagogue ascend to the presidency, was found guilty only of being an ex-felon in possession of a firearm. It is a crime that carries a sentence of between 16 months and three years. With time served, Garcia Zarate’s incarceration may already be at an end.

Following the verdict, deputy public defender Matt Gonzalez addressed the throngs of cameras in the same calm voice he'd used through the trial. Firstly, he expressed his "sincere condolences to the Steinle family" and stated that he hoped "they don't interpret this verdict to diminish in any way the awful tragedy their family has suffered." Then the defender went on the offensive:

"A number of people have commented on this case in the last couple of years. The attorney general of the United States. The vice president and president of the United States. Let me just remind them: They are themselves under investigation by a special prosecutor in Washington, D.C. And they themselves may soon avail themselves of the presumption of innocence and the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard. So, I'd ask them to reflect on that before they comment or disparage the result of this case."

Within an hour, that attorney general, Jeff Sessions, released a statement condemning San Francisco and all other sanctuary cities. More questions and answers were bandied back and forth in the hallways before the press retreated to compose their stories. Predictably, in the echo chambers of social media, a firestorm of men and woman wishing God's wrath upon California and San Francisco had already whipped up.

Back in the Hall of Justice, an onlooker stopped one reporter on his way to his desk. "Is it true," the man asked, "that there were illegals on that jury?"

 

Matt Gonzalez doesn't so much walk as amble. He gets where he wants to go, but on his own time and via his own route. Over the course of the 6-week trial of his client Garcia Zarate, the former mayoral candidate turned public defender often spoke to the jury the same way. Gonzalez's closing argument last week was a methodical attempt to unlace every knot tied by prosecutor Diana Garcia. The argument itself stretched over two days. There were no Johnnie Cochran histrionics, no rhymes, no catchphrases; Gonzalez didn't even raise his voice. But many others did.

The question of what Jose Ines Garcia Zarate really intended to do on July 1, 2015, when he fired a pistol on Pier 14 and killed Kate Steinle, was never quite what it appeared to be. This wasn't an immigration case, disappointing anti-immigration zealots, one of whom regularly showed up to the trial and snarled about "the false narrative" while live-casting from the corridors of the Hall of Justice. Even still, the specter of Donald Trump, who rode the slaying of "Beautiful Kate" at the hands of an undocumented Mexican to the presidency, loomed over the courtroom.

This case, instead, centered on abstruse matters such as the mechanics of a 40-caliber Sig Sauer pistol; gunshot residue contamination; the trajectory of a bullet after it skips off a concrete pier and then hurtles 78 feet; and, perhaps most of all, the rules binding an ethical jury on how to regard circumstantial evidence. If you can draw reasonable inferences from the established facts that point toward either innocence or guilt, jurors were instructed, you must favor innocence. Likewise, if you can draw 10 reasonable inferences that point toward guilt and one that points toward innocence, you must still favor innocence. Those are the rules of this game—they favor the defense. And Gonzalez wielded them like a cudgel. "Honestly,” he said to the jurors at one point, “this case shouldn't have been charged."

The crux of the defense’s argument remained consistent throughout the trial: There was not sufficient evidence to conclude that Garcia Zarate had done anything other than inadvertently discharge a weapon. According to Gonzalez’s theory of the case, the homeless man, who was clad in two pairs of jeans, one sock, and two shoes—one laced—had discovered a mystery package wrapped in a shirt or rag beneath a chair on the pier. He examined it. In so doing, the weapon hidden within—a pistol stolen days earlier from a federal ranger's parked car—went off. The gun had been pointed toward the ground and the bullet hit the cement 12 feet away, after which it caromed another 78 feet directly into Kate Steinle's heart. "An accident doesn't become anything other than an accident because we don't like what happened," Gonzalez told the jury during opening statements. In his closing argument, he added that Garcia Zarate "missed Ms. Steinle by 78 feet. But for the ricochet, he does not hit her."

The prosecution's case, to the contrary, shifted during the trial. In its waning days, Assistant District Attorney Diana Garcia upped the ante, adding first-degree murder to the pile of charges. The Garcia Zarate of her closing argument was a far cry from the oafish man she described to the jury during opening statements on a sweltering late-October day. Back then, Garcia avoided descriptions or even adjectives regarding Garcia Zarate or his state of mind, preferring instead to let his actions do the talking.

But, by the time Garcia addressed the jury on Nov. 20, that narrative had changed. Now the defendant was an out-and-out assassin on the hunt for a victim; he'd furtively transported a gun to a "target-rich environment" and pre-meditated a thrill kill while selecting his victim— "a vibrant, beautiful, cherished woman named Kate Steinle"—after "leering" at passing females.

President Trump may have been out of sight in Superior Court as the prosecution made this case, but he was not out of mind. It was impossible to ignore the optics that Garcia was tapping into—the living embodiment of the killer Mexican illegal alien that Trump claims is inundating our nation, complete with the element of sexual menace.

It would be left for the jury to determine if this was a savvy move on the part of the prosecution or a grievous error.

 

Throughout the proceedings, which may have been the most security-heavy court case in San Francisco since Dan White was tried for the killings of Harvey Milk and George Moscone, cameras weren’t permitted within the courtroom, and sketch artists weren't even allowed to draw the jurors. But the six men and six women on the jury appeared to be a remarkable cross-section of this city. They were strikingly young, with many in their 20s and 30s and only two in, perhaps, their early 50s. They were predominantly white, Asian, and Latino. They were attentive, and they had to be, because Gonzalez and Garcia presented to them a Rashomon situation on Pier 14.

As the prosecutor, Garcia at times adopted a goofy voice to ridicule defense notions she found implausible. She did so when dismissing Garcia Zarate's claims he stepped on the gun (with "big shoes") or tossed it in the bay because he was frightened and it kept going off. "It's not a firecracker," she sniffed. She stated, repeatedly, that Garcia Zarate was "playing his own secret game of Russian Roulette" as he weighed which person he'd murder before cooly disposing of the weapon and exiting the scene. "He knew damn well what he did," she said, with intensity.

Gonzalez, by comparison, spoke in the calming tones of a funeral director. Prior to his closing statement he said not to expect any appeals to the heart. "I am not interested in emotional arguments," he told San Francisco at one point during the trial. "I have found, over the years, they tend to wear off. I like an intellectual explanation of the evidence." Or, in this case, the lack of evidence.

The only proof the prosecution presented that Garcia Zarate brought the gun to the pier, Gonzalez said, was that it would have fit in his pockets. "It probably fits in a couple of my pockets, too," he observed to the jury. Despite the hysteria surrounding this case and Garcia Zarate's release from San Francisco County Jail, the defendant's criminal history was limited to drug charges and illegal re-entries. He had, he claimed, never before handled a gun. And yet, the prosecution argued that the defendant's discovery of a pistol transformed him into "a killer harboring a secret desire to shoot at a person," said Gonzalez. By extension, "you'd have to believe that if he found a knife, he'd want to stab someone."

Gonzalez subtly mocked many of the prosecution's claims. The fact that Garcia Zarate was staring at passers-by and laughing and spinning in his swiveling chair didn’t mean that he was “deciding where to fire this gun," as Garcia put it. The prosecutor had showed the jury a photo of Garcia Zarate glancing toward the distant Steinle only moments before the fatal shot was fired. But Gonzalez displayed a second photo taken only seconds later in which, far from obsessing on the victim of his murder plot, he was gazing off in the other direction—a bored homeless man sitting by the dock of the bay, wasting time.

Regarding the shot that killed Kate Steinle, Garcia described it as "a straight shot. Maybe not an easy shot." Maybe? Gonzalez's experts saw things differently. A bullet dented by the concrete could change directions in midair "like an airplane wing," one testified. Gonzalez claimed that this was the only ricochet ever to lead to a charge of murder in city history. It wasn’t an easy shot, or a straight shot, he argued—it was the unluckiest bank shot imaginable. In the end, the jury appeared to agree with that contention.

As Thursday afternoon turned to evening, a helicopter hovered above the Hall of Justice, and a line of TV news vans parked out front transmitted their stand ups. On the courthouse steps, courtroom sketch artists finished up their drawings in the dawning darkness.  Angry tweets about the trial had already begun to pour in. The world was again on fire. A final sentence for Garcia Zarate would be determined in the weeks to come. But, this time—thanks to a federal warrant ordering his deportation back to Mexico—he will not be simply walked out of the jail and sent on his way. He will be banished from America soon, but he'll continue to haunt the nation's political wars. Like his victim, he won’t soon be forgotten. 

  

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