Prosecution expert presents conflicting testimony on Steinle shooting

No clear evidence from key witness that Zarate intended to point a gun at the victim

A retired police officer who appears to be the prosecution’s main expert on how a gunshot ricocheted off the concrete of Pier 14 and killed Kate Steinle testified in the Zarate trial today – and let me (and perhaps the jurors) a bit confused.

John Evans, who spent 26 years with SFPD, 11 with the Crime Scene Investigation Unit, took the stand to try to explain a critical element in the case: How did a bullet hit the hard concrete then bounce and hit Steinle – and does the path of the projectile show that Jose Ines Garcia Zarate was pointing the gun in her direction when it discharged?

Former CSI supervisor John Evans testifies about the positioning of the victim and the suspect in the shooting. Drawing by Vicki Behringer

The defense is arguing that Zarate never intended to fire the weapon, that it went off while he was handling it and that the ricochet was a tragic accident.

Evans took a very different approach. Under questioning from prosecutor Diana Garcia, he described how he had been called to the scene as the supervising investigator on July 2, 2015, a year before he retired.

He said that the CSI unit never found a shell casing from the weapon – but he also said that’s not surprising, since the casings are light, the pier was windy and narrow, and it could have gone anywhere, including into the Bay.

Then he described what he called “vector analysis” – a process that involved using a laser pointer to determine if there was a direct line from where Zarate was allegedly sitting to the divot in the pier where the bullet hit, and then from there to where Steinle was standing.

Evans was clearly an experienced witness who was careful with his answers. But at one point, he – like Garcia in her opening statement – spoke of how “skip shots” – bullets that bounce off a hard surface – can be “intentional.”

And while he insisted that the path from the chair to where Steinle stood was a straight line, he also said that the bullet hitting the concrete would have changed its direction.

Still, he said: “A human being held the firearm, pointed it in the direction of Ms. Steinle, pulled the trigger and fired the weapon, killing Ms. Steinle. This is the only way it could have happened.”

When Garcia asked how the shot could have gone low and hit the pier floor, Evans said that inexperienced shooters often jerk the trigger of a gun, causing it to discharge before it is level with the ground.

That, of course, assumes that Zarate intended to fire the weapon in the first place.

Matt Gonzalez, representing Zarate, objected to that line of questioning, saying that Evans hadn’t been qualified as an expert and referring to his analysis as “junk science.” But Judge Samuel Feng overruled him.

During cross-examination, Gonzalez challenged the whole concept of “vector analysis.” He pointed out that CSI normally does something called “trajectory analysis,” but Evans said that wasn’t possible in this case since there was no fixed point where the gun was fired and no fixed point where the bullet landed.

The CSI team estimated where the gun was fired (from a swivel chair, possibly from a right hand or a left hand or some other position) and estimated where it hit the victim (based on where her blood was found and where her bloody clothing was left after the paramedics took her to the hospital.)

That’s a lot of loose points. Evans admitted that his team didn’t know exactly where Zarate was, or where Steinle was. And the term that Evans used to describe his system isn’t standard forensic technique.

“I have been doing this a long time,” Gonzalez said, “and I have never heard of ‘vector analysis.’”

But the central point of his testimony came when Gonzalez asked if it would be fair to say that hitting the hard concrete changed the direction of the bullet.

“Yes,” Evans said.

In that case, Gonzalez, asked, can there really be a straight line from the barrel of the gun to where Ms. Steinle was standing?

Well, as Bill Clinton almost said, that depends on the definition of what “straight” is.

Evans said that from a side view, the trajectory of the bullet would look like an elongated ‘V’. But from above, the shot would appear to be straight.

When Gonzalez asked if the bullet could have been deflected horizontally, the CSI supervisor said he didn’t understand the question.

This much we got from the testimony: The bullet hit the concrete hard enough to dig out a divot. After that, it stopped spinning and “tumbled” – not how bullets normally travel.

And yet, Evans said the path from the barrel of the gun to the victim was still essentially straight.

“When you try to say it was a straight line but you don’t know where the suspect was and where Ms. Steinle was, you are engaging in wild speculation,” Gonzalez said.

In essence, we learned, the CSI team created a pair of circles, around where the victim was likely hit by the bullet, and where the gun was likely fired. If those circles were big enough, it would be easy to find a straight line between them that included the place where the bullet hit the concrete.

If those circles were smaller, it might be much harder to define that straight line, Gonzalez said.

If, in fact, the bullet hit the ground and was deflected to the left or the right, it would support the idea that Zarate wasn’t aiming at anyone. So we heard this exchange:

Q: What evidence do you have that someone pointed a firearm at Ms. Steinle?

A: My training and experience is that firearms do not fire by themselves.

That wasn’t the point – the question at hand is whether Zarate actually aimed toward the people on the pier. But the questioning took a new direction, with Evans insisting that it’s exceptionally rare for a gun to go off unless a human being has pulled the trigger.

That will be an issue later, when the defense presents the experts promised in opening statements who will say that some weapons, like the Sig-Sauer .40 in question, have a history of accidental discharges.

But back to the central question.

Evans said that someone who was “stressed” or “in a hurry” might be likely to pull the trigger in a way that sent a bullet into the ground, even though that person meant to fire at a target.

There is at this point no evidence that Zarate was stressed or in a hurry. “Isn’t it just as likely that the bullet stuck the ground because it was accidentally fired,” Gonzalez asked.

“No, I don’t think it’s just as likely, it’s less likely,” Evans said.

Q: “But you don’t know that he even knew he was handling a firearm.”

A: “I don’t know what was in his mind.”

Q: “You don’t know if it was an accident or not.”

A: “I cannot say.”

Garcia, in a brief (and rare) discussion with reporters outside the courtroom, said she can’t say how many more witnesses she’s going to present. The trial continues tomorrow.

 

 

 

31 COMMENTS

  1. This, and according to Rosh HoshHosh’s “logic”, what difference does it make how you hold the gun? According to him/her recoil doesn’t change a thing when it comes to hitting a target.

    Methinks he/she has never actually fired a gun.

  2. I’m mot arguing semantics. It’s relative truth based on the scientific method and our understanding of the English language. I’m not claiming any absolute truths.

    I’m out on this one, see you next time.

  3. And what about recoil? People are trained to hold a handgun firmly with two hands. I wonder what would happen if a gun really did go off while someone was just unwrapping a t-shirt. Would have hurt like hell I bet.

  4. Well look, by your logic no bullet ever fired on planet earth (or any other planet for that matter) ever went straight. Gravity doesn’t work that way.

    But we’re arguing semantics. The gun was pointed directly at the victim horizontally, the vertical was screwed up a bit. Not bad for a guy who had just swallowed pills that he found in a dumpster.

    And more than enough for murder 2 based on depraved indifference.

  5. Right. But the bullet’s trajectory only begins when it leaves the barrel, not when the trigger is pulled. There are fractions of seconds that can make all the difference in the world.

  6. And given that Pier 14 is pretty heavily trafficked during the day, that there aren’t any dark corners or hidden spots to hide anything, and that the seating consists of very small single-person swivel-chairs on pedestals, it’s pretty strange to think that it was sitting there all day and no one else noticed it.

  7. The bullet won’t change it”s trajectory until there is another force that impedes it’s travel – like concrete or gravity.

    Recoil does not change the trajectory of the bullet. The bullet has already exited and it is this exit force that causes the gun to recoil (or kick as you call it). Unsteady hand does not change the trajectory after firing either. As playland insinuated, it’s all physics and quantum mechanics.

  8. No, it isn’t, not at all. Unsteady hands or kick can change the position of the gun as the bullet leaves the barrel.

  9. No, once the bullet leaves the barrel it won’t change its trajectory (unless it strikes something or something strikes it). However, in the nanoseconds between firing and the bullet leaving the barrel, an unsteady hand, “kick”, et al., may indeed change the position of the gun itself, thereby changing the actual trajectory of the bullet from the intended trajectory of the bullet.

  10. When did it deviate? At which millisecond was it not closer to the victim than it was the millisecond before?

  11. Again, it’s proof of where the gun was pointed when it was discharged. You’re trying to dismiss that.

  12. There is forensic proof. Once the gun is fired the trajectory will not change from that spot. Your inference is misleading.

  13. No. It did not go straight.

    It would give the appearance of going straight when looked at two dimensionally, or when looked at from directly above the line of travel in a three dimensional model, but it is not technically correct to say the bullet went straight ‘towards the innocent victim.’

  14. Still proves nothing about intent. Also does not prove what the shooter was trying to aim at. It’s proof of exactly nothing but a ricochet.

  15. But you have no proof of that at all. A gun might be pointed at a different angle but various other factors may cause the gun to suddenly point downwards upon firing.

    The ricochet does not speak to intent, and that is what this trial hinges on: intent.

  16. Where are the toxicology reports? I heard that Zarate said that he had marijuana and some sleeping pills that he had found in a dumpster. I don’t think that even marijuana is a good thing if you are handling a gun.

    On a related note, Zarate seemed to spend a lot of time in dumpsters. But he found the gun in plain sight on Pier 14. And that must be true because he said so.

  17. Guns fire * straight * when the trigger engages the firing pin.

    Well, yes. And this bullet went straight towards the innocent victim. Would you feel better if someone shot a gun in your exact direction IF it hit the ground first before reaching you?

  18. Sheer speculation (see comment on speculation).

    Guns fire * straight * when the trigger engages the firing pin.

  19. yes, but that direction is subject to variables – if one for instance, isn’t familiar with firearms and jerks the gun: “When Garcia asked how the shot could have gone low and hit the pier floor, Evans said that inexperienced shooters often jerk the trigger of a gun, causing it to discharge before it is level with the ground.”

  20. The main ‘thing’ is that the gun was pointed at the concrete when it was fired. With the speculation comes the lies.

  21. It proves where the barrel of the gun was pointed the moment the trigger was pulled hard enough to engage the firing pin. That’s important testimony.

  22. Yes, the ricochet cannot speak to intent, but the direction may. And there are any number of things that may have caused the bullet to ricochet first.

  23. This was pretty inconclusive testimony for either side.

    As I have said before, a ricochet proves nothing but a ricochet.

  24. What about the illustration above with this article? Evans drew a line from the blood stains to the divot, continued it and it seems to point to one of the metal swivel chairs (bench is a misnomer, as anyone who has ever been to Pier 14 knows).

    Gonzalez may argue that the bullet changed direction horizontally after bouncing off the ground but that will be a very difficult argument. You don’t want to pick a fight with Sir Issac Newton.

    he thinks that where the shooter and the gun were facing, not where the gun was aimed, is what counts

    This is the first time that I am thinking that murder 2 is a possibility (as opposed to manslaughter). I am pretty sure that there is a callous disregard for public safety clause and this is really starting to fit. You don’t aim, point, or face anywhere near another human being.

  25. Tim, there’s no picture and I am not clear completely on what was where, but from what you describe, I think the ambiguity is about the word ‘direction’. If you shoot so you are facing north, say, but the gun is pointing downwards, the bullet will move north and down, then ricochet off the ground and continue north and up. So it’s not in the same straight line, but always moving in a northern direction. If I understood you right, what Evans was saying was that the gun was shot while facing Steinle, but downward, and he thinks that where the shooter and the gun were facing, not where the gun was aimed, is what counts.

  26. Also,

    The witness (retired CSI sergeant) had a spectacular tie. As he wound out down the hall after his testimony I complimented him on it.

    His response?

    With a big smile.

    “It was designed by Frank Llyold Wright.”

    Hey, that’s pretty cool.

    Guy looked at gore for 26 years and in his retirement, still see’s art and pattern.

    Go Astros!

    h.

  27. Great coverage, Tim,

    The Steinle parents were at the trial. Pubic Defender, Jeff Adachi attended. “Aquamarine’ was not there after threatening me to meet me and have me arrested when I arrived at the usual lottery.

    I got a call from the B.A.R. political guy this afternoon related to the D-8 election (I support Rafael Madelman) and he thought he couldn’t get into the trial cause there weren’t enough tickets for the Press?

    Dear, all Press!

    After only a half dozen people show up for the Public spots (24 and the most they are given to the Press.

    Just show up 8:30am to get a lottery ticket and you’ll automatically win at 9am.

    In fadt, they don’t even do the lottery.

    They just hand out passes.

    So, stop telling your editors that you can’t go sit in that uncomfortable courtroom because you can’t get access.

    Go Astros!

    h.

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