Steinle killing was an accident, defense witness suggests

In Zarate Trial, firearms expert debunks prosecution theory

The bullet that killed Kate Steinle was probably fired from someone in a sitting position leaning forward, a defense firearms expert testified today in the Zarate Trial.

Although the judge would not allow James Norris, former director of forensic services for the San Francisco Police Department, to say that he thought the firearm discharge was an accident, the evidence he presented was consistent with that scenario.

James Norris, a firearms expert, testifies on the Steinle shooting. Illustration by Vicki Behringer

Norris said that his analysis of the path of the bullet suggested that it was fired from between 1.5 and two feet from the ground. That’s completely inconsistent with the prosecution version of events: Prosecutor Diana Garcia and her key witness, who was not certified as an expert by the court, argued that Jose Ines Garcia Zarate intentionally aimed the gun in the direction of Steinle and pulled the trigger.

If Zarate had wanted to shoot someone, pointing the gun at the ground would make no sense, Norris said. And given that the gun, a Sig-Sauer semi-automatic, had a round in the chamber and seven more in the magazine, it’s unusual that he stopped firing after one round.

“At that distance, someone who wanted to shoot someone would keep shooting,” he said.

Norris described the gun as a weapon typically used by police and military personnel; it had no safety, and was advertised as ready to fire at any time.

The trigger pull was on the light side of handguns, at around 4 pounds in single-action mode, his testing showed. That’s about the amount of pressure on the trigger of “a squirt gun that little kids use,” he testified.

The trigger has to be moved about an eighth of an inch to fire, he said.

“Do you believe the Sig-Sauer 239 can accidentally discharge/” Gonzalez asked.

“Yes,” said Norris.

Q: “If somebody is handling the weapon and doesn’t mean to fire it, it can discharge?”

A: “Yes.”

Norris said he had worked on a case where an officer using this same firearm had drawn it and the trigger had bumped into a knob on his radio and gone off.

In fact, he said, the gun can fire if something hits the side of the trigger.

The prosecution’s main firearms witness, John Evans, insisted that “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.”

Evans said that the bullet skipped, but continued in the same straight-line direction after hitting the concrete pier.

But Evans was never certified as an expert witness, and Norris, who met that standard, directly challenged most of what Evans said.

When the projectile hit the concrete, he said, it would have changed direction – and it’s impossible to predict what path it might have taken. It could have curved, veered away from its original vector, moved to the left or the right … “this has been written about [in scientific literature] for years. When you shoot into concrete there is no way to predict where the bullet will go.”

Norris testified that he had read the report Evans wrote, and it didn’t change his opinion that it’s unlikely Zarate aimed the gun at Steinle. “The weapons seems to have been pointed down,” he said. “From that position, it would be very difficult to aim.”

He said that “no expert could say that it was a purposeful shot.”

The expert spent a fair amount of time talking about the trigonometry of the bullet: The angle that it hit the concrete, and the angle that it bounced off. The jury heard a lot about tangents and arc-tangents.

But the bottom line, he said, was that the gun was close to the ground at the time it discharged.

Gonzalez asked Norris about the gunshot residue on Zarate’s hand, and he explained that in his experience, the discovery of just one tiny particle of residue would not be enough to say that the person had fired a weapon. There are traces of GSR in police cars, on handcuffs, on the bodies of police officers … and since a gun discharges hundreds of these particles when it fires, the presence of more than one is generally needed to prove that a person fired the weapon, he said.

Norris said that if the gun was wrapped in a cloth or shirt at the time it discharged, that might explain why Zarate had only one particle of GSR on his hand.

On cross examination, Garcia tried to challenge Norris by saying that his statements today were inconsistent with his earlier testimony at the preliminary hearing – but that mostly fell flat. She pushed him on whether the gun could discharge without someone pulling the trigger, and he made clear that something – which could be someone’s finger or could be something else – might cause the gun to fire.

“We debunked the prosecution’s theory,” Francisco Ugarte, co-counsel with Gonzalez, told reporters.

Tomorrow the jury will see enhanced video evidence.