Final arguments in the Garcia Zarate trial — and a night of comedy by an SF original

That's The Agenda for the week ahead

Closing arguments in the Jose Ines Garcia Zarate trial are set for Monday/20, and it’s likely that the case will go to the jury by Tuesday. The six men and six women will have a day and a half to deliberate before the judge dismisses them for the holiday Wednesday at noon.

The trial took almost four weeks, and the jury will have a range of options to consider, including a First-Degree Murder verdict.

During opening statements, Matt Gonzalez referred to the gun that was found in the Bay. Drawing by Vicki Behringer

It’s hard to guess how long deliberations may go, and what it would mean if there’s no verdict until after Thanksgiving.

And I’m not a lawyer and I don’t make closing arguments (although I’ve made some suggestions in my time). But let’s go over the hard evidence that was presented at trial and see what the prosecution and defense will be talking about.

There are a few facts that are not in dispute.

On July 1, 2015, Kate Steinle and her father were walking along Pier 14 in San Francisco. The 32-year-old lived nearby, and her dad was visiting.

Garcia Zarate, who has spent much of his adult life behind bars for the crime of crossing the border into the United States, had been scheduled for release from federal prison a few weeks earlier. But the feds discovered an old warrant for a minor drug sale in San Francisco, so instead of letting him go (or turning him over to ICE for deportation) they brought him to SF County Jail.

To nobody’s surprise, the district attorney declined to prosecute on the old warrant, and – following existing legal procedure – the sheriff released him.

Garcia Zarate walked out of the Hall of Justice in June with nothing but the second-hand clothes the Sheriff’s Office had given him. He knew nobody in the city. He wound up homeless, living on the waterfront, trying to scrounge anything he could to survive.

He was, as his lawyer Matt Gonzalez noted, exactly the kind of person who would pick up something off the ground that looked interesting; might be clothes, might have value.

That afternoon, while the Steinles were walking on the pier, Garcia Zarate arrived and sat down on a swivel chair about 90 feet away from them. He had never met Kate Steinle or her dad; he had no connection whatsoever with them.

Several days earlier, a federal agent with the Bureau of Land Management, driving with his family from Southern California to a temporary assignment in Montana, parked his car on the Embarcadero and went to get dinner. He left a loaded Sig-Sauer .40, with a round in the chamber and the slide in firing position, in a backpack under the seat.

Somebody – and there is no indication that it was Garcia Zarate – broke into the car and stole the gun.

That gun wound up on the pier, in the same place as Garcia Zarate. It discharged. The bullet hit the hard concrete and bounced – flattened on one side, tumbling – and stuck Kate Steinle, severing her aorta and killing her.

The prosecution argues that Garcia Zarate pointed the gun in her direction, pulled the trigger, and fired. If he did that – if he knew he had a lethal weapon in his hand and fired it with reckless disregard for the loss of human life – then he could be found guilty of second-degree murder.

In fact, in some of the testimony, the prosecution has tried to argue that the homeless immigrant found the gun somewhere else, not on the pier, picked it up, put it in his jacket pocket, carried it to the chair, aimed and fired.

Deputy District Attorney Diana Garcia has asked the judge to instruct the jury about first-degree murder – which would require the jurors to believe that Garcia Zarate, who has a second-grade education and clear cognitive issues, planned the killing in advance, and shot with malice toward someone he had never met.

In testimony, the prosecution’s key witness, John Evans, a former SFPD crime scene investigator, insisted that the only way Steinle could have died is if “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.”

That’s become a central point of contention – particularly since a defense witness – who, unlike Evans, was actually qualified as a firearms and forensic expert – disputed almost everything Evans said.

The defense presented witnesses, including Jim Norris, a former director of the SF Crime Lab, and a firearms expert from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who said that the prosecution theory made no sense.

The Sig-Sauer has no safety, has a very light trigger pull, and could have gone off if, for example, it got snagged on a piece of cloth.

A grainy video taken from a fireboat hundreds of feet away showed that just before Garcia Zarate arrived and sat down on the pier, a group of what appeared to be six people were gathered at the exact chair he would later occupy. They appear to be picking things up and putting things down.

The video shows that at the moment before Steinle fell to the ground, Garcia Zarate was leaning over, as if to pick something up.

The defense argument – that Garcia Zarate found the gun wrapped in what might have been a shirt, picked it up, and it accidentally discharged – seems to me entirely plausible.

The prosecution theory that Garcia Zarate, who had no prior experience with firearms or history of violence, intended to aim at or near Steinle and pulled the trigger, either seeking to harm her or with no regard for the possible loss of life, seems to require a leap of faith that goes beyond what the evidence shows.

Here’s what I would say to the jury:

I think we can stipulate, as the lawyers would say, that what happened July 1, 2015 was a terrible tragedy. A young woman who had done nothing wrong died in her father’s arms. It’s unspeakably awful. It should never have happened.

If a federal agent (who was later promoted) hadn’t been so sloppy with a dangerous weapon, it would never have happened. If somebody hadn’t broken into the agent’s car and stolen, and later ditched, the gun, it would never have happened. If Garcia Zarate had been given some sort of support when he left jail – if he’d be taken to a homeless shelter, a navigation center, someplace where a Spanish-speaking counselor could get him the medication and help he needed – it would never have happened.

If Garcia Zarate wasn’t in federal prison for the crime of trying to come to a country where he might be able to work enough to feed himself, it would never have happened.

There is a long string of events that led to this tragedy. And the only one on trial is the person at the very end, who clearly never intended to kill Kate Steinle.

How this adds up to a murder charge continues to baffle me.

Nato Green, who is one of my favorite local writers and comedians, is recording an album at a pair of live shows Saturday/25 at Doc’s Lab. “The Whiteness Album,” the press release says, will “skirt the border between slap-your-knee funny and slit-your-wrist funny as Nato dissects our current terrifying historical moment.”

It’s also going to be your last chance to catch Nato Green in SF for a while; after this show, he’s moving with his family to Havana Cuba while his wife does her Ph.D research.

The show’s at 124 Columbus, SF, 7pm and 9pm, $15. Buy tickets here.

  • Porfirio666

    Nato Green is on the SEIU payroll just like you. CWA Local 9404 thinks hiring Yuckmeisters/journalists amounts to contracting out local jobs:

    http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/CWA-accuses-SEIU-local-of-contracting-out-jobs-5820301.php

  • No_Diggity

    SEIU 1021 used to be a client of mine. They are one of the most wasteful and useless organizations I have ever seen.

  • SF Sunset Guy

    “Garcia Zarate walked out of the Hall of Justice in June with nothing but the second-hand clothes the Sheriff’s Office had given him. He knew nobody in the city. He wound up homeless, living on the waterfront, trying to scrounge anything he could to survive….If Garcia Zarate had been given some sort of support when he left jail – if he’d be taken to a homeless shelter, a navigation center, someplace where a Spanish-speaking counselor could get him the medication and help he needed – it would never have happened.”

    Tim, if you keep wringing your hands, they’re going to fall off.

    • Geek__Girl

      He speaks the truth. The BLM agent should have been fired for gross negligence and incompetence. A loaded gun, with bullet chambered, unlocked, in a car under the front seat is bad enough. But doing that in a car with three children is outrageous. Yes, I am sure he told the kids “Don’t touch my gun.” Like that has been 100% successful in preventing accidents involving children…or adults.

      • SF Sunset Guy

        The BLM agent didn’t shoot anyone. Tim is still emotionally hand-wringing and contorting the conditions of this tragedy, for either pity, sympathy or compassion – but for the shooter, not the victim.

        • playland

          That is very true. Just in this article Tim writes

          Garcia Zarate, who has spent much of his adult life behind bars for the crime of crossing the border into the United States

          Well, he also spent time behind bars for 3 felony drug convictions in Washington and 1 in Oregon. But we don’t want those little details to spoil our little fairy tale.

          Also:

          Garcia Zarate, who had no prior experience with firearms

          And how, exactly, does Tim know that? Did he go to Mexico to interview people who knew Zarate during his years there? Or did he just state it as fact…well, just because.

          • SF Sunset Guy

            Tim knows this because it fits his sympathetic overwrought narrative. This is mostly an opinion piece – “The defense argument – that Garcia Zarate found the gun wrapped in what might have been a shirt, picked it up, and it accidentally discharged – seems to me entirely plausible.” is simply his giving the benefit of the doubt as always to the perpetrator and his lawyers arguments, not matter how spurious.

          • Geek__Girl

            That is the legal standard. If there is no evidence, you give the defendant the benefit of the doubt. The prosecution has to prove it’s case. The defense just has to raise reasonable doubt. The prosecution has not really proved much of anything. Of course, you are a classic right wing-nut who believe totally in “guilty unless they are white, at least middle class, and at least conservative.”

          • Geek__Girl

            All those charges in Washington and Oregon had very light sentences. Or did you miss that? There is no evidence that he ever had a firearm in his life. There is no record of him ever being caught with one. With no evidence the assumption has to be that he has no prior experience. See, you and your fellow bigots all want to follow Garcia’s lead and just make stuff up.

        • Geek__Girl

          No, he was absurdly incompetent. I never said he shot anyone. He was just very negligent, and foolish.

  • curiousKulak

    What about his claim to police of aiming at sea mammals?