The defense in the trial of Jose Ines Garcia Zarate called its last witness today, ending a week of testimony that challenged the central elements in the prosecution’s murder case.
Fanny Suarez, a certified court interpreter and an expert on Spanish-English legal interpretation, told jurors that the language a San Francisco police officer used to ask Garcia Zarate questions during his interrogation contained critical translation errors.
Officer Martin Covarrubias was part of the team that questioned the homeless immigrant for more than four hours. Covarrubias translated the questions of other officers and some of Zarate’s replies.
But under questioning from defense lawyer Francisco Ugarte, Suarez said that being “fluent” in a language doesn’t mean a person is a good legal interpreter. “You need special training, and high proficiency in both languages,” she said.
At numerous points during the interrogation, officers asked Garcia Zarate whether he pulled the trigger on the gun that killed Steinle. That’s a key part of the prosecution’s case: Deputy District Attorney Diane Garcia said during her opening statement, and her key police witness testified on the stand, that Garcia Zarate intentionally pointed the gun in Steinle’s direction and pulled the trigger.
The defense argues that the gun went off by mistake.
“Is there a Spanish word for ‘trigger?’ Ugarte asked.
“Yes,” Suarez said. “Gatillo is trigger.”
Q: “When Covarrubias said ‘you pulled the trigger,’ was that properly translated?”
Instead, throughout the interrogation, every time Covarrubias asked about pulling the trigger, what he was actually asking is whether Garcia Zarate had fired the gun.
The defense doesn’t argue that Garcia Zarate was present when the gun discharged. So the distinction is more than academic, it’s central to the outcome of the jury deliberations.
“The issue of whether he admitted he pulled the trigger is a big issue,” Ugarte told reporters outside the courtroom.
Added Matt Gonzalez, who is leading the Garcia Zarate defense team: “The Spanish translator apparently didn’t know the word for ‘trigger.’”
Gonzalez said the team is “very satisfied with how the evidence was presented to the jury.”
The prosecution can now call rebuttal witnesses, who would appear Monday. Closing arguments are tentatively set for Monday, Nov. 20, after which the case will go to the jury.