SAN FRANCISCO (CNN) — A jury on Thursday found an undocumented immigrant not guilty in the July 2015 death of Kate Steinle, a decision that reignited the debate over immigration policy.
Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, 45, was acquitted of murder and involuntary manslaughter charges, as well as assault with a deadly weapon. Jurors convicted the Mexican citizen of being a felon in possession of a firearm.
Prosecutors had argued Garcia Zarate intentionally shot Steinle, 32, with a Sig Sauer .40-caliber handgun as she and her father walked on San Francisco’s Pier 14. But Garcia Zarate’s defense attorney contended the shooting was accidental.
Garcia Zarate had been deported from the United States five times prior to Steinle’s death.
Reaction to the jury’s decision, after more than 24 hours of deliberation over six days, was swift, with conservatives saying San Franciso’s status as a sanctuary city was largely to blame for what happened that summer day. Before the shooting, officials in San Francisco released Garcia Zarate from custody instead of turning him over to immigration authorities.
“I urge the leaders of the nation’s communities to reflect on the outcome of this case and consider carefully the harm they are doing to their citizens by refusing to cooperate with federal law enforcement officers,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement.
Sessions said: “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.”
Conservative pundit Ann Coulter said Steinle “would still be alive if we had a wall,” referring to President Donald Trump’s call for the construction of a border wall between the US and Mexico.
But one of the defendant’s lawyers said the debate over immigration didn’t belong in the case.
“Nothing about Mr. Garcia Zarate’s ethnicity, nothing about his immigration status, nothing about the fact that he was born in Mexico has any relevance to what happened on July 1, 2015,” said public defender Francisco Ugarte.
Steinle, her father and a friend were at the pier when a bullet struck Steinle’s lower back and tore through her abdominal aorta, authorities said.
Surveillance video showed Garcia Zarate running away. After his arrest, investigators found gunshot residue on his right hand, prosecutor Diana Garcia told jurors.
Garcia Zarate faced a charge of second-degree murder, but jurors also were allowed to consider first-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter convictions.
Prosecutors said Garcia Zarate was playing his own “secret version of Russian roulette” and deliberately fired into an unsuspecting crowd on the pier, killing Steinle.
Defense attorney Matt Gonzalez said Garcia Zarate found the gun at the pier. He said it was wrapped in cloth, and when Garcia Zarate unwrapped it, the gun accidentally discharged.
But in a police interrogation, Garcia Zarate admitted to firing the gun, saying he was aiming at a seal.
He told police that he stepped on the gun, causing it to fire.
Prosecutors said Garcia Zarate immediately tried to cover his tracks by throwing the gun into the San Francisco Bay, then fleeing the scene.
Garcia Zarate was formerly known as Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, one of several aliases he is known to have used. CNN and other media outlets previously identified him as Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez.
Sanctuary cities and ‘Kate’s Law’
Garcia Zarate’s undocumented status and San Francisco’s status as a sanctuary city prompted widespread debate over immigration policies.
Freya Horne, chief legal counsel to the San Francisco County Sheriff, said in a 2015 interview that Garcia Zarate was let go because there was no legal cause to detain the suspect.
Steinle’s family filed a lawsuit in 2016 alleging that San Francisco and its former sheriff were partly to blame for Steinle’s death, because officials never notified Immigration and Customs Enforcement when Garcia Zarate was released from a local jail in April 2015. City officials have said they’re not liable for a former inmate’s actions. A federal judge dismissed the family’s claims against San Francisco and former Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi earlier this year.
Steinle’s death became a rallying cry for Trump and others, who have invoked the case in decrying sanctuary cities and promoting the construction of the border wall.
“This senseless and totally preventable act of violence committed by an illegal immigrant is yet another example of why we must secure our border immediately,” Trump said in July 2015. “This is an absolutely disgraceful situation and I am the only one that can fix it. Nobody else has the guts to even talk about it. That won’t happen if I become President.”
Trump also mentioned Steinle in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention after winning the Republican presidential nomination.
This summer, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 3004, dubbed “Kate’s Law” — a measure named for Steinle. The legislation would increase maximum prison penalties for immigrants caught repeatedly entering the US illegally.
The measure was introduced in the Senate but failed to get the 60 votes needed to pass.
ICE Deputy Director Tom Homan’s Statement on Verdict in Steinle Case:
“San Francisco’s policy of refusing to honor ICE detainers is a blatant threat to public safety and undermines the rule of law. This tragedy could have been prevented if San Francisco had simply turned the alien over to ICE, as we requested, instead of releasing him back onto the streets. It is unconscionable that politicians across this country continue to endanger the lives of Americans with sanctuary policies while ignoring the harm inflicted on their constituents. Following the conclusion of this case, ICE will work to take custody of Mr. Garcia Zarate and ultimately remove him from the country.”