Hello, this is Summary Judgment, a podcast offering easy-to-understand explanations of major court cases as they are decided. I’m Alan Mygatt-Tauber.
This week we’re discussing State v. Garcia Zarate, the California trial of the undocumented immigrant accused of killing Kate Steinle.
This case drew national attention when then candidate Trump highlighted it as a problem with so-called Sanctuary Cities, cities that refuse to hold those arrested of crimes for immigration officials.
Kate Steinle was a young woman walking with her father along Pier 14 in San Francisco, when a bullet fired from a Sig Sauer pistol struck her in the back. She died in her father’s arms.
Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, a homeless undocumented immigrant, was arrested for the shooting and charged with murder. He had been previously deported from the United States on five occasions and had been caught a sixth time. He had also previously been convicted of numerous drug crimes, although had no history of violence. While awaiting federal action, Garcia Zarate was transferred to the custody of the San Francisco Sheriff’s department on a 20 year old drug warrant. After prosecutors decided not to press charges, Garcia Zarate was released because he did not have any outstanding felony warrants.
Garcia Zarate faced four charges in the trial: 1) murder in the first degree; 2) murder in the second degree; 3) involuntary manslaughter; and 4) being a felon in possession of a firearm. He was acquitted on both of the murder charges as well as the manslaughter charge. He was convicted of the possession charge.
Given the highly publicized and politicized nature of the trial, a lot of outrage has followed the jury’s verdict. But much of it is based on a misunderstanding of the relevant laws as well as the facts in this case. A few things are undisputed – most important is the fact that the bullet that killed Kate Steinle ricocheted off the pavement about 12 feet from Garcia Zarate and travelled an additional 78 feet before striking Steinle in the back. Another fact is that the Sig Sauer is a weapon with no safety and a notoriously light trigger pull, which makes it prone to accidental shootings, even when handled by trained professionals. The weapon itself was stolen from a park ranger days before the shooting and there was no evidence that Garcia Zarate stole it. In fact, the jury saw video of several other men sitting in the area where Garcia Zarate allegedly fired the pistol, picking up and putting down numerous objects.
The defense’s argument was that Garcia Zarate found the gun wrapped in a t-shirt under a bench on Pier 14. At the time he picked it up, he did not know what it was. It then accidently discharged and killed Kate Steinle.
The prosecution argued that Garcia Zarate brought the gun to the pier that day with the intent to do harm. This is where the law comes in.
As the jury was instructed, under California law, if there are two reasonable explanations on a criminal charge, one pointing toward guilt and the other toward innocence, the jurors are required to vote to acquit. The fact that the bullet ricocheted off the ground near Garcia Zarate, before travelling over 6 times as far and striking Steinle, makes it very hard to show beyond a reasonable doubt that Garcia Zarate planned to kill her, a key element in first degree murder. It also makes it doubtful whether Garcia had the necessary intent to support second degree murder. Thus, that charge was out.
The key question most people have is about the manslaughter charge – even without intent, Garcia Zarate’s actions resulted in Kate Steinle’s death – why isn’t that the very definition of involuntary manslaughter?
Again, the law makes the difference here. Under California law, involuntary manslaughter can be proved one of two ways: 1) a death occurs in the commission of an unlawful act, not amounting to a felony; or 2) in the commission of a lawful act which might produce death, in an unlawful manner, or without due caution and circumspection.
According to an alternate juror who sat through the whole trial, the prosecution focused on the first of these. According to the jury instructions, the jury had to find that a crime was committed in the act that caused death; and the defendant acted with criminal negligence – he acted in a way an ordinary person would have known was likely to lead to someone’s death.
According to the juror, they were not free to identify any crime that Garcia Zarate had committed, such as being a felon in possession of a firearm. Rather, they had to rely on the prosecution’s choice – that he was “brandishing” the weapon. The jury instructions defined brandishing as displaying the gun in a rude, angry or threatening manner.
However, no witnesses testified to seeing Garcia Zarate waving the gun around or pointing it at anybody. According to the alternate juror, the prosecutor presented no evidence of brandishing during the trial. In fact, he could not recall even hearing the word until it was read as part of the jury instructions.
Finally, the alternate juror had some doubt about the criminal negligence requirement of the manslaughter charge. Only a single particle of gunshot residue was found on Garcia Zarate’s hands, which would support his argument that the gun was wrapped in a rag when he picked it up. This would also support his claim that he did not know it was a gun. Again, under California law, when two plausible theories point in opposite directions, the jury is obligated to go with the one that points to innocence.
The death of Kate Steinle is undoubtedly a tragedy. But the trial of Garcia Zarate is an object lesson in waiting to hear all the facts and not just following headlines or news reports. Many people expressed shock and outrage at the verdict, but a knowledge of the law shows that the jury most likely made the correct call.
Given the fact that the bullet ricocheted off the ground, and did so far closer to Garcia Zarate than to Kate Steinle, I cannot believe that Garcia Zarate was attempting to kill her when the gun went off. From the evidence presented, there is reasonable doubt that Garcia Zarate possessed the gun for more than a few moments, and there is an open question as to whether he even knew it was a gun. Given these questions, the jury made the right call in acquitting him of the murder charges.
The manslaughter charge is a closer call. Had the prosecutors picked an easier to prove charge, such as Garcia Zarate’s status as a felon in possession of a firearm, I think the verdict would have come out the other way. But to completely fail to present any evidence that he brandished the gun, when you are relying on that very brandishing as a key element of the charge, is, in my opinion, bordering on malpractice. The criminal law is defined by elements of the crimes charged – if you fail to prove an element, you have failed to prove the charge. In this case, it appears that the prosecution did not meet its burden in proving that Garcia Zarate committed the underlying misdemeanor. Given that, the jury had no choice but to acquit Garcia Zarate, which is what they did.
He was convicted, however, of being a felon in possession of a firearm, which carries a sentence up to three years in state prison. As of this recording, federal authorities have charged him with violating the federal version of that crime, which carries up to an additional ten years. After serving any such prison sentence, he will then be subject to deportation for a sixth time.
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