Nearly seven years after police arrested him in the killing of Kate Steinle, an undocumented homeless man was sentenced to time served Monday on two gun charges in a case that became a lighting rod in the national debate over illegal immigration.
Jose Inez Garcia-Zarate fired a bullet that ricocheted off the ground and struck Steinle, 32, in the back as she walked on a San Francisco pier with her father in July 2015. The Mexican national had just been released from jail after federal authorities transferred him to San Francisco to face a two-decade-old marijuana case that was promptly dismissed.
Garcia-Zarate faced two federal gun charges after a jury acquitted him of murder and other charges in state court. He ultimately pleaded guilty to both federal charges for illegally possessing a firearm on the day of the shooting.
His sentencing Monday marked the end of a protracted legal battle that first garnered national attention when Donald Trump seized on the case during his presidential campaign to call for a crackdown on so-called sanctuary cities, which limit cooperation with immigration authorities.
But Garcia-Zarate’s troubles with law enforcement are far from over. He now faces up to two more years in custody in an illegal reentry case out of Texas, where he is accused of violating the conditions of his release. He will then almost certainly be deported back to his birth country.
Garcia-Zarate, 51, stood next to his attorneys, Tony Serra and Mike Hinckley, for his sentencing at the federal building on Monday. He wore orange jail garb, his slight figure hunched as he listened to proceedings through a Spanish interpreter.
After handing down the sentence of time served, U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria warned Garcia-Zarate not to return to the U.S. following deportation.
“If you return to this country again and you are back in front of me, I will not spare you in any way,” Chhabria cautioned. “Let this be your last warning: Do not return to this country.”
Chhabria eschewed a harsher sentence, in part because he said Garcia-Zarate endured “oppressive” conditions in jail over the last seven years. All the while, Garcia-Zarate lacked consistent mental health treatment for schizophrenia, resulting in him being found unfit to stand trial on the gun charges in federal court.
“That must have been hell,” the judge said.
Serra called the sentence a compromise. He and Hinckley asked the judge to impose a sentence of less than time served so Garcia-Zarate could apply some of the time he spent in jail in this case toward the additional sentence he is likely to receive in Texas. Federal prosecutors, on the other hand, requested time served. And Chhabria said he considered a longer sentence since the crime resulted in Steinle being killed—an “unimaginable” tragedy.
Though Serra likened Trump to a “big white elephant in the court,” the former president’s name never came up at sentencing. (The ex-commander-in-chief—and any mention of immigration—was also noticeably excluded from the entire state trial). Serra tried to have the case tossed when the U.S. Attorney's Office first charged Garcia-Zarate, arguing that prosecutors filed the case in retaliation for the state court’s acquittal.
“If Trump wasn’t in office, there would be no federal case,” Serra told The Standard.
Garcia-Zarate was living on the streets at the time of the shooting, picking through trash cans along the waterfront. The shooting unfolded as he sat on Pier 14, spinning on a swivel chair.
While both prosecutors and defense attorneys agree that Garcia-Zarate was on the pier with a gun, how he ended up with the weapon is in dispute.
Prosecutors say Garcia-Zarate could have brought the gun onto the pier in the pocket of his oversized pants. Defense attorneys, however, argue that the pistol accidentally went off after Garcia-Zarate found it wrapped in a rag beneath his seat on the pier.
The pistol was stolen from a federal law enforcement ranger’s car before the shooting, but authorities never charged Garcia-Zarate with stealing the weapon.
During his murder trial in state court, defense attorneys presented grainy surveillance footage from a far-off firehouse that showed a group of unidentified people gathered around the swivel chair before Garcia-Zarate arrived at the pier and sat down.
But Chhabria said there was little evidence to prove the defense theory. He speculated that the jury may have acquitted Garcia-Zarate of murder in the state case either because the theory was enough to create reasonable doubt or because former District Attorney George Gascon abruptly decided—as the trial neared an end—to try the case as a first-degree murder.
“Maybe the jury was just furious at George Gascon,” Chhabria said.
At the same time, Chhabria doubted Garcia-Zarate knew what he was doing at the time of the shooting because of his diagnosis, which made him err toward leniency.
After the shooting, Garcia-Zarate made incomprehensible statements to police and to media during a jailhouse interview with a local TV station. Chhabria argued that both the prosecution and defense cherry-picked statements Garcia-Zarate made during the interviews to suit their narratives. He questioned whether anyone could glean the truth from either of those conversations given the incoherence of some of the statements, including Garcia-Zarate saying he was born in the 1800s.
Chhabria took particular issue with the jailhouse interview from ABC7 News, saying the reporter asked leading questions to get explosive responses.
“How ABC News got into that jail to conduct that interview with Mr. Garcia-Zarate is beyond my wildest imagination,” Chhabria said. “I hope there was an investigation.”
Prosecutors say the Steinle family declined an offer to appear at the sentencing.
“This is an incredibly difficult topic for them to talk about or think about,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Cheng told Chhabria.
Garcia-Zarate also declined to speak during the hearing beyond answering simple questions from the judge. He made a statement through one of his attorneys.
“He feels horrible about what happened,” Hinckley said. “He is very sorry and apologizes.”
Garcia-Zarate is now expected to be transferred to federal authorities in Texas to face his pending case for violating the terms of his release.
Michael Barba can be reached at [email protected]