An undocumented immigrant acquitted of murder in the 2015 shooting death of Kate Steinle on San Francisco’s Pier 14 pleaded guilty to federal firearms charges Monday, closing the book on a case that former President Donald Trump seized upon during his ascent to power.
Nearly seven years ago, Jose Inez Garcia-Zarate, a 51-year-old Mexican national, was arrested along the Embarcadero after he allegedly fired a stolen gun at the pier on July 1, 2015. The bullet ricocheted off the ground and struck Steinle in the back as she walked arm-in-arm with her father, adding fuel to the fire in the national debate over immigration.
A jury found Garcia-Zarate not guilty of all but one charge—being a felon in possession of a firearm—in a November 2017 verdict that Trump called “disgraceful.” Garcia-Zarate’s defense attorneys from the Public Defender’s Office, Matt Gonzalez and Francisco Ugarte, had argued that the gun went off accidentally when Garcia-Zarate reached under a chair at the pier.
The gun was stolen from the vehicle of a federal agent for the Bureau of Land Management, but Garcia-Zarate was never charged with the theft.
While his gun conviction was later overturned on appeal, a federal grand jury indicted Garcia-Zarate on two gun charges relating to being a felon in possession of a firearm and being an “alien” in possession of a firearm. The case took years to work through the federal courts, with a judge expressing concerns about Garcia-Zarate’s mental health.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office announced his guilty plea Monday, saying Garcia-Zarate admitted to being in possession of a semi-automatic pistol loaded with eight rounds and to knowing “he was an alien that was unlawfully and illegally in the United States at the time.”
But Ugarte, one of the defense attorneys in the state trial, said the plea should not be confused with “proof of his actual guilt.”
“Innocent people plead guilty every day, and this is how mass incarceration works,” Ugarte said in a statement to The Standard. “Nothing about today’s plea bargain changes what really happened on July 1, 2015, nor does it change the fact that Mr. Garcia Zarate was found not guilty and fully exonerated for all charges by the California courts.”
Garcia-Zarate is set to be sentenced June 6 and remains in custody. He faces up to 10 years in prison for each of the charges, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Michael Barba can be reached at [email protected]