Calif. Appeals Court Throws Out Firearms Conviction of Steinle Killer

September 2, 2019 Updated: September 3, 2019

In a politically charged case, a California state appeals court tossed the single remaining conviction against an illegal alien who was found not guilty of a murder charge four years ago for shooting a random woman at a San Francisco tourist attraction, after he had been freed by local authorities. The case drew national attention to sanctuary cities’ refusal to hand over wanted individuals to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Multiple deportee Jose Ines Garcia-Zarate, also known as Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, fired one bullet into Kate Steinle, 32, on Pier 14 on July 1, 2015. Steinle was shot in front of her father and later died in a hospital.

On the campaign trail, President Donald Trump referenced Steinle’s killing by the illegal alien who was prematurely freed by the local jailer.

Before the shooting, ICE had filed an immigration detainer document with then-Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, a Democrat, identifying the man as an immigration law-enforcement priority and requested he be temporarily held beyond any scheduled time of release so the agency could take him into custody. Three months before the shooting, Mirkarimi, an outspoken supporter of the sanctuary movement, followed San Francisco’s official sanctuary policy and refused to keep Garcia-Zarate in jail to await ICE.

After his arrest, the foreign national, who was already a convicted felon and had previously been deported to Mexico five times, claimed he had found the stolen gun and that it had fired accidentally when he picked it up. The bullet ricocheted, striking Steinle, evidence showed. A jury acquitted him of murder on Nov. 30, 2017, but convicted him on a single count of unlawful gun possession. He was given a three-year prison term.

After the murder acquittal, Trump denounced the verdict and then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions blamed San Francisco’s sanctuary policy for the victim’s death.

“The Kate Steinle killer came back and back over the weakly protected Obama border, always committing crimes and being violent, and yet this info was not used in court. His exoneration is a complete travesty of justice. BUILD THE WALL!” he wrote on Twitter on Dec. 1, 2017.

But on Aug. 30, by a vote of 3–0, a panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal in San Francisco, threw out the firearms conviction because Garcia-Zarate only held the gun momentarily. The court held that the jury’s verdict meant jurors rejected the prosecution’s contention that the shooting was deliberate or negligent. The jury had asked the trial judge to define possession and explain if a time element applied to it.

“These questions go to the heart of the momentary possession defense,” Justice Sandra Margulies wrote for the appeals court. “The fact the jury asked whether there was a time requirement for possession suggests jurors were wrestling with how long defendant had the gun.”

Public defender Matt Gonzalez, who represented Garcia-Zarate at the original trial, was Ralph Nader’s running-mate on the Green Party’s 2008 presidential ticket.

“This really wasn’t a close call,” Gonzalez told reporters. “He picked up an object not knowing what it was, it fired, and he threw it to the ground when it did fire.”

Garcia-Zarate is currently in custody on new federal gun possession charges. The trial is scheduled to begin Jan. 13, 2020.

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