Why was Garcia Zarate charged with murder?

Jury verdict shows that the DA's case was shaky, at best -- so why did Gascon pursue this?

There’s only one conclusion I can reach from the outcome of the trial of Jose Ines Garcia Zarate:

This case should never have been charged as murder. Maybe it never should have been charged at all.

Court clerk reads the verdict as Matt Gonzales and Jose Ines Garcia Zarate look on

Zarate, as the national and local news have now reported at length, was acquitted of all the serious charges this afternoon. The jury deliberated for six days, a long time in a case like this. The six men and six women went over the evidence carefully. And they concluded that there was no way Garcia Zarate was a killer.

On the day the trial opened, I asked District Attorney George Gascon if he thought the case was properly charged. At that point, the prosecution was asking for second-degree murder; after the evidence was presented, Deputy District Attorney Diana Garcia moved to add First Degree Murder to the charges.

Gascon told me he though the charges were proper and that the evidence would support them. That’s what Garcia said in her opening statement.

Now: Jury trials can lead to unexpected verdicts, but in this case, we had a San Francisco jury, of mixed ethnicity, accepted by both sides. I was there for much of the trial, and my colleague Sana Saleem was there for the rest; 48hills didn’t miss a day.

And I walked away thinking: There’s no evidence to prove murder. It wasn’t even close.

Gascon and Garcia knew what the evidence was going into the trial. They knew what the defense was going to argue. Perry Mason aside, there are not typically a lot of secrets in criminal cases, not a lot of sudden revelations that one side or the other introduces at the last minute.

Diana Garcia is a seasoned and experienced prosecutor, and nobody can say she bungled the case. She was polished and presented the evidence as well as anyone could in her position.

Judge Samuel Feng was, overall, extremely favorable to the prosecution. There’s no way anyone could argue that he was too pro-defense in his rulings.

Garcia Zarate was lucky to be charged in San Francisco, where the Public Defender’s Office provides better representation that a lot of the most high-priced private lawyers around. Matt Gonzales and Francisco Ugarte, representing Garcia Zarate, brilliantly took the prosecution’s case apart, bit by bit, and in closing arguments, debunked the entire murder theory.

But in the end, that was going to happen. The evidence didn’t support the charges.

In his opening statement, Gonzalez asked: If the person who picked up what turned out to be a gun that went off by accident had been a white person, would this even be a murder case?

Did the fact that he was an undocumented immigrant whose role in the death of Steinle became a major national issue play into the fact that he was charged with a crime that would be very, very hard to prove?

What would have happened if they DA had said that, at worst, this was involuntary manslaughter?

Gascon comes from a Cuban immigrant family. He supports Sanctuary City. He’s not a right-winger at all. In some ways, he’s been a pretty good DA.

But I have to keep coming back to the facts of the case.

In her closing argument, Garcia (whose parents were also immigrants) said that the defendant picked up the gun and carried it to the pier intending to shoot someone because “that would give him power.”

There’s nothing in his history or the trial record that supports her claim. The Mexican immigrant with a second-grade education has no history of violent crime. That was just radical over-reach. In fact, in his closing, Gonzalez argued that the case should never have been charged as murder.

What was going on here?

As has been typical from the start of the trial, Gonzalez, Ugarte, and their boss, Public Defender Jeff Adachi, took the time to talk to reporters and take questions. Gonalzes offered his condolences to the Steinle family, and pointed out that the acquittal of his client doesn’t change the fact that the family has suffered a terrible loss.

Ugarte noted that this case “was used to foment hate, division, and mass deportations.”

In a nice touch, Gonzales noted that if the president and vice president of the United States decide to criticize this verdict, they should remember that they are under investigation by a special prosecutor and might at some point want to respect the concept of due process, the presumption of innocent, and the right to trial by jury.

Garcia and Gascon did not speak to the press after the verdict. Alex Bastian, a spokesperson for the DA, said this wasn’t the verdict that they wanted, but didn’t go much beyond that.

But this is one that Gascon, as an elected official, is going to have to answer for. A huge amount of time and effort – and expense – went into putting an immigrant on trial for murder without a whole lot of evidence to support that.

What happened to Kate Steinle was a terrible tragedy. The way her death became a political issue (thanks to Donald Trump) was another terrible tragedy. And this trial? What was the point?

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