Looking back on the runup to the 2016 election and its attendant media circus, certain events loom larger than others: The surreal spectacle of Donald Trump’s golden escalator speech, the Access Hollywood tape, Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables,” the laptop.
And then there was the tragic killing of Kate Steinle on July 1, 2015, at Pier 14 in San Francisco.
In Ricochet, the unmissable new documentary from co-directors Chiriro Wimbush and the late Jeff Adachi—San Francisco’s former public defender—the death of Steinle is reexamined and unpacked for its historical significance.
The incident was ultimately ruled a freak accident; the defendant, Jose Inez Garcia-Zarate, claimed all along that he found the gun and inadvertantly discharged it on that fateful day. However, in the aftermath of Steinle’s death, then-candidate Trump seized upon the case, transforming it into a national litmus test on immigration and progressive ideology.
Here are five takeaways from Ricochet, which screens Wednesday, June 1, at The Roxie at 6:30 p.m. as part of SF DocFest.
It Was Bloody Red Meat For the MAGA Base
Trump’s version of the narrative went something like this: A five-time deported “bad hombre” named Jose Inez Garcia-Zarate wantonly shot an innocent passerby named Kate Steinle in the back. Thanks to some slick lawyering, and in spite of all the evidence, the jury let the undocumented man—who had been in and out of federal prison—go free.
(Garcia-Zarate, it should be noted, did not go free. He is still in custody and recently pleaded guilty to gun charges.)
Trump pointed to the case as proof positive that California liberals, with their “Sanctuary Cities” were destroying America. “Where was the sanctuary for Kate Steinle?” then-candidate Trump asked rhetorically.
FOX News loved the story tenderly—as did other 24-hour cable news networks. Conservatives used the shooting as a wedge to attack San Francisco’s then-25 year old sanctuary law, intended to make undocumented immigrants feel safe when dealing with the police and the health care system.
Democrats: Between a Rock and a Hard Place
For her part, then-candidate Clinton wasn’t going to touch this mess with a 10-foot pole. As we see in a clip from the campaign trail, she, like so many Democrats before and after, sought to thread an impossible needle.
She was at once progressively minded and tough on crime; a proponent of welcoming immigrants with open arms, but intolerant of those who broke the law.
“The city made a mistake, not to deport someone that the federal government strongly felt should be deported,” Clinton told CNN at the time,” referring to Garcia-Zarate. “So I have absolutely no support for a city that ignores the strong evidence that should be acted on.”
What Actually Happened?
Public defenders Matt Gonzalez and Francisco Ugarte—among the heroes of this documentary—insist that what happened on the late afternoon of July 1, 2015, along the Embarcadero was “an exceptional moment that, afterwards, everyone doubts could have happened.”
According to Ricochet, Garcia-Zarate was a man of constant and unfailing bad luck. As the jury later agreed, on that July day, a Mexican national from the city of Guanajuato was sitting alone on Pier 14. He noted a bundle of rags and brushed it with his feet. Inside the bundle was a stolen Sig Sauer P239 pistol.
The gun was loaded and hair-triggered—4 pounds of pressure was all it required to do its deadly work. It went off. The bullet took a divot out of the concrete pier, ricocheted, and hit Steinle, a 32-year-old from the eastern Alameda County suburb of Pleasanton, in the back. She died with her horrified family at her side.
Garcia-Zarate panicked, tossed the gun into the bay and ran. He was soon apprehended and arrested.
Working with this outline, the prosecution had a theory that Garcia-Zarate was a hothead who’d come to the “target-rich” pier to take out a stranger. When the divot was discovered, the Deputy District Attorney prosecuting the case argued that Garcia-Zarate had been pointing the gun in Steinle’s direction and that the bullet had only ricochetted because the shooter was sitting down. Even if convicted on the least charge of unintentional manslaughter, Garcia-Zarate was facing 19 years in prison.
Who Is Really Responsible?
Some will argue that Garcia-Zarate’s acquittal was an example of misplaced leniency and say it was it was a miscarriage of justice.
But others will argue that Garcia-Zarate was a victim of a broken system and the repeated subject of mandatory sentencing. Garcia-Zarate was in San Francisco, his defenders argue, because immigration officials had shipped him to the city to face a marijuana charge so old and weak that the city didn’t feel like prosecuting it. The only reason he ended up in the carceral system to begin with, they say, is that he crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally in search of work.
Why Rehash This Story?
Adachi and Wimbush wrap this story of diabolical misfortune with well-wrought aesthetics. The site of the death is, sadly, glorious, with the Bay Bridge startlingly large against Treasure Island; underneath, the ferries sidle in, and the fog diffuses all. The defendant’s face is haunting. It happened that a passing photographer noted Garcia-Zarate’s wretched state as he sat alone, and took a picture of him; he looked like so many lost souls, sitting at the Embarcadero looking out at the ships.
Moreover, Ricochet gives you what you’d get from an absorbing courtroom drama: favorite scenes such as the lawyers at work, eating dinner at their desks out of styrofoam clamshells. The closed circuit camera footage of the cops, bellowing as they squeeze a confession out of their suspect, is just like the movies—so is the mandatory good cop, a police translator patting Garcia Zarate on the shoulder as he persuades the suspect to confess.
Whenever it can, the filmmakers add a splash of local color to the story, noting the palette of the court watercolor artist, and having a look at the very good paintings at the Public Defender’s Office. Also elegant is Ricochet’s soundscapes, which provide a fitting sonic melancholy to the film.
Writer Dave Eggers, interviewed here, sums up the case concisely. He gives us a little breathing room to take in the ironies and contradictions of a misfortune, in which two vastly separate classes were suddenly stitched together by the path of a bullet.
On this point, we journalists may have some soul-searching to do: This case made national news largely because it has so many of the literary cliches writers are always seeking out.
It’s very unfortunate that the grieving Steinles were sucked into the political sewage of the case. As for Trump, he couldn’t be bothered to actually call up and talk to the Steinles, even after flaunting Kate’s demise relentlessly on the campaign trail.
If Ricochet has a flaw, it’s that the necessary focus on Garcia-Zarate’s ordeal—and all it reveals about our criminal justice system and American politics—means that we never get a deep sense of who Kate Steinle truly was.
‘Ricochet’ screens Wednesday, June 1, at The Roxie at 6:30 p.m. as part of SF DocFest.
Richard von Busack can be reached at [email protected]
Arts & culture story tips can be sent to [email protected].