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.