A federal judge on Monday will finally decide the fate of a Mexican national who fatally shot a woman on a San Francisco pier seven years ago, becoming fodder for the anti-immigrant campaign of former President Donald Trump.
Jose Inez Garcia-Zarate, 51, has spent nearly seven years behind bars since police arrested him on July 1, 2015, in the killing of Kate Steinle. Garcia-Zarate fired a bullet from a stolen gun that ricocheted off the ground and struck Steinle in the back as she walked with her father on Pier 14.
Trump immediately seized on the shooting during his presidential campaign to call for a crackdown on illegal immigration and sanctuary cities like San Francisco, which, as a matter of policy, refuse to deputize local police for immigration enforcement.
A jury acquitted Garcia-Zarate of murder and other charges in 2017 after defense attorneys argued that he found the gun wrapped in rags beneath a chair on the pier and fired the weapon on accident. But federal prosecutors filed a new set of gun charges against him right after the verdict.
Garcia-Zarate is now due to be sentenced in federal court on Monday after pleading guilty in March to two counts for being a felon and an undocumented immigrant in possession of a firearm.
Neither side in the federal case is arguing that Garcia-Zarate should spend more time in custody over the shooting than he already has.
In court filings this week, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said Garcia-Zarate should get credit for time served—the equivalent of an eight-year sentence.
Defense attorneys Tony Serra and Mike Hinckley also initially argued for Garcia-Zarate being sentenced to credit for time served before changing their recommendation to no more than six years, court records show.
Either recommendation would effectively mean that Garcia-Zarate is transferred to Texas, where he faces more time in custody for violating the terms of his release in an illegal re-entry case from 2009, and ultimately deported back to his birth country of Mexico.
Garcia-Zarate was born in Leon, Guanajuato, Mexico to a large family. He started working at a local shoe factory at age six before immigrating to the U.S. around age 20, court records show. He has struggled with mental illness and Schizophrenia, and has spent a majority of his adult life behind bars.
Garcia-Zarate found himself living along the waterfront in early 2015 after federal authorities transferred him to San Francisco to face a warrant from a two-decade old marijuana case. Local authorities promptly dismissed the case and released him instead of giving him back to immirgation officials.
It’s unclear how Garcia-Zarate ended up with a gun on the day of the shooting.
The pistol was stolen during a car burglary shortly before the shooting when a federal law enforcement ranger left the weapon in his vehicle along the Embarcadero. But Garcia-Zarate has never been charged with the theft.
In state court, prosecutors suggested that Garcia-Zarate carried the pistol in his pocket to the pier and intentionally shot Steinle while playing a “secret version of Russian Roulette.” But defense attorneys said a group of unidentified people—captured on grainy security camera footage—could have left the gun on the pier. They argued that the gun unintentionally went off when Garcia-Zarate picked up what to him was an unknown object wrapped in a rag.
In a sentencing memorandum, federal defense attorneys said Garcia-Zarate didn’t mean for the “tragedy” to occur but “has been saddened and horrified that it did and that he had a part in causing it.”
“Those who have painted Garcia-Zarate’s role in this incident as willful, or intentional, or reckless have been wrong entirely,” attorneys Serra and Hinckley wrote. “This incident was always a tragic accident.”
But federal prosecutors blasted the theory that Garcia-Zarate found the gun wrapped in a rag, saying that the defense relied on cherry-picked statements from the interview Garcia-Zarate did with arresting officers. Prosecutors said he was apparently playing with a loaded gun on the pier.
“While the killing of this victim may not have been intentional, it is clear that Defendant’s illegal possession of the firearm was no accident, and his firing of it was at the very least reckless,” assistant U.S. attorneys Eric Cheng and Kevin Barry wrote in their sentencing memorandum.
His sentencing is set for 9 a.m. Monday before U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria.
Michael Barba can be reached at [email protected]