SAN FRANCISCO (CBS/AP) — Jurors Thursday afternoon acquitted the illegal immigrant accused of killing Kate Steinle as she walked with her father on a crowded San Francisco pier of all charges except for felony possession of a firearm.
A spokesperson for the Superior Court of California made the announcement that the jury had reached a verdict shortly after 3 p.m. Shortly after 4:30 p.m., the shocking verdict was announced that Jose Ines Garcia Zarate was found not guilty of all charges except for the gun possession charge.
Jurors have been deliberating on the case since Tuesday, November 21, after prosecutors and defense attorneys finished their arguments whether Garcia Zarate was a hapless homeless man who killed Steinle in a freak accident or a calculated murderer intent on playing a sick game.
The jurors broke for the long Thanksgiving holiday weekend on Wednesday, November 22. Deliberations have been ongoing since the jury reconvened this past Monday.
The jury of six women and six men considered charges against Garcia Zarate that include murder, assault with a deadly weapon and being a felon in possession of a firearm in the death of Steinle, a 32-year-old Pleasanton native and San Francisco resident.
Defense attorney Matt Gonzalez spoke after the verdict was read, first taking a moment to offer condolences to the Steinle family.
“I hope that they do not interpret this verdict as diminishing in any way the awful tragedy that occurred,” said Gonzalez.
Gonzalez was also quick to ask that the jury’s decision be held in the proper regard.
“This jury’s verdict should be respected,” Gonzalez said. “They heard the evidence. They deliberated as a group. They heard read back testimony. They looked at the physical evidence and they rendered a verdict to the best of their abilities in accordance with the law.”
The attorney also anticipated the likely criticism that could be forthcoming from some high-profile politicians who had already commented on the case.
“For those who might criticize this verdict – there are a number of people who have commented on this case in the last couple of years; the Attorney General of the United States and the President and Vice President of the United States,” said Gonzalez. “Let me just remind them: they are themselves under investigation by a special prosecutor in Washington D.C. and they may soon avail themselves of the presumption of innocence beyond a reasonable doubt, so I ask that they reflect on that before they comment or disparage the results of this case.”
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions wasted no time attacking San Francisco’s Sanctuary City policies after the not guilty verdict in the high-profile trial was made public.
Sessions issued a statement placing the blame for Steinle’s July 1, 2015 death on the city’s Sanctuary City policies, which limit cooperation and communication between local law enforcement and immigration authorities.
“When jurisdictions choose to return criminal aliens to the streets rather than turning them over to federal immigration authorities, they put the public’s safety at risk,” Sessions said. “San Francisco’s decision to protect criminal aliens led to the preventable and heartbreaking death of Kate Steinle.”
Steinle was walking with her father and a family friend in July 2015 when she was shot, collapsing into her father’s arms. Garcia Zarate had been released from the San Francisco jail about three months before the shooting, despite a request by federal immigration authorities to detain him for deportation.
He had been deported five times and was wanted for a sixth deportation.
Acting U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Thomas Homan said that immigration officials will take custody of Jose Ines Garcia Zarate once his case concludes.
Alex Bastian, a spokesman for the San Francisco prosecutor’s office, said the “verdict that came in today was not the one we were hoping for” but it was the jury’s decision and prosecutors would respect it.
Jurors did find Garcia Zarate guilty of being a felon in possession of a firearm.
Public Defender Jeff Adachi said that charge carries a potential sentence of 16 months to 3 years.
Jim Steinle, Kate’s father, told the San Francisco Chronicle the family was saddened and shocked by the verdict.
“There’s no other way you can coin it. Justice was rendered but it was not served,” he said in what he called the last interview he would do about the case.
Steinle’s death put San Francisco and its “sanctuary city” policy in the spotlight, as Democrats and Republicans lashed out at city officials for refusing to cooperate with federal deportation efforts.
On Thursday evening President Trump tweeted that the jury had returned a “disgraceful verdict.” Trump said it is “no wonder the people of our Country are so angry with Illegal Immigration.”
During the presidential race, then-candidate Donald Trump cited the killing as a reason to toughen U.S. immigration policies. Trump later signed an executive order to cut funding from cities that limit cooperation with U.S. immigration authorities, a policy that a federal judge in San Francisco permanently blocked Monday.
But the politics of immigration were not allowed to come up in the month-long trial.
San Francisco Deputy District Attorney Diana Garcia said she didn’t know why Garcia Zarate fired the weapon, but he created a risk of death by bringing the firearm to the pier that day and twirling around on a chair for at least 20 minutes before he fired.
She said he then ran away while other people tried to figure out what had happened. The bullet ricocheted on the pier’s concrete walkway before it struck Steinle.
“He did kill someone. He took the life of a young, vibrant, beautiful, cherished woman by the name of Kate Steinle,” she said.
Gonzalez said in his closing remarks that he knows it’s difficult to believe Garcia Zarate found an object that turned out to be a weapon that fired when he picked it up.
But he told jurors that Garcia Zarate had no motivation to kill Steinle and as awful as her death was, “nothing you do is going to fix that.”
He urged jurors to pick apart the facts of the case, instead of swallowing a ludicrous narrative by the prosecution that relied on circumstantial evidence.
Garcia called the defense’s argument just as implausible and told jurors to look at the entire picture.
The semi-automatic handgun used to kill Steinle was stolen from a federal Bureau of Land Management ranger a week before the shooting.
Before the shooting, Garcia Zarate had finished a federal prison sentence for illegal re-entry into the United States and was transferred in March 2015 to San Francisco’s jail to face a 20-year-old charge for selling marijuana.
The sheriff’s department released him a few days later after the district attorney dropped the marijuana charge, despite a request from federal immigration officials to detain him for deportation.
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