One criminal case is over, and an undocumented immigrant is slated for deportation. But for Kate Steinle’s parents, the legal battle over who is responsible for their daughter’s death is just entering its next phase.
Jose Ines Garcia Zarate was sentenced Friday to time served for unlawful possession of a firearm, following a jury’s decision in November to reject murder charges against the Mexican national for firing a bullet that killed Steinle as she strolled down a San Francisco pier in 2015.
The acquittal provoked a fresh flurry of protest, including from President Donald Trump, who had used Steinle on the campaign trail to make the case for a border wall, an end to “sanctuary cities” and stricter immigration policy.
But Steinle family attorney Frank Pitre said after the trial that there had always been “two chairs missing on the defense table.”
Steinle’s parents want to see the city and county of San Francisco and its former sheriff pay for the fatal shooting, saying that their policies allowed Garcia Zarate, who had been deported five times, to keep walking the streets of San Francisco.
They want to see the federal government held responsible for the handgun that was used, after it was stolen from an federal agent’s car.
“Kate’s fate was sealed when a U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management Ranger failed to properly secure and/or store a government-issued firearm while it was left in an unoccupied vehicle in a high auto-theft neighborhood,” the family said in a lawsuit filed in 2016.
A federal judge dismissed the family’s case against U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, San Francisco and the county’s then-Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, but said the case against the Bureau of Land Management could proceed because its employee’s negligence contributed to Steinle’s death.
With the end of Garcia Zarate’s latest trial, Pitre said attorneys can access the files they need to take their wrongful death lawsuit to trial. They hope to secure a trial date at a scheduled hearing this month. They are appealing the judge’s ruling in the case against San Francisco and Mirkarimi.
The wrongful death cases could enlarge the political debate about what failed Steinle: local immigration policies or federal mismanagement of guns?
Trump — who had launched his presidential campaign two weeks before Steinle’s killing with a speech decrying Mexican immigrants as criminals and calling for a border wall — quickly fixated on the death of “beautiful Kate.” He said the case is proof that “sanctuary city” policies, which restrict local officials from assisting in enforcement of immigration laws, are dangerous and must be stopped.
The 12-member jury in San Francisco Superior Court was tasked with deciding whether Garcia Zarate meant to shoot Steinle. His prior criminal record — including multiple convictions for drug charges and for re-entering the country illegally — were never part of the discussion.
When the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department released Garcia Zarate on a dropped marijuana charge in April 2015, he had no money, no cellphone and no place to live. Three months later, he was wandering around the pier — wearing two pairs of pants, with cracker crumbs in his pocket and one of his shoes missing its lace — when he found and picked up the stolen handgun.
It went off. The defense said a single bullet hit the ground 12 feet away and ricocheted 78 feet, the length of a tennis court, into Steinle’s back.
The jury quickly discarded the first- and second-degree murder charges, which require premeditation, the juror said. It decided there was no evidence of involuntary manslaughter either, because the prosecution was unable to prove Garcia Zarate behaved recklessly.