Defense: ‘Freakish ricochet’ killed Kate Steinle

A “freakish ricochet” after a stolen gun went off in the hands of the homeless man who found it led to the accidental shooting of Kathryn Steinle as she walked on Pier 14 with her father two years ago, according to Matt Gonzalez, chief attorney for the public defender’s office.

In opening statements today in the trial of Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, 45, who is charged with second-degree murder in Steinle’s fatal July 1, 2015 shooting, prosecutor Diana Garcia said he fired at Steinle or others in the crowd deliberately.

Steinle, a 32-year-old who lived in San Francisco’ South Beach neighborhood and worked at Medtronic, was walking on the pier with her father and a family friend around 6:23 p.m. after a meal at the nearby Ferry Building when she was struck in the back by a single bullet and killed.

Gonzalez told jurors that Garcia Zarate found the gun beneath a seat at the pier where he was sitting that evening.

When he bent to pick up the heavy object, which was wrapped in a t-shirt, the gun went off and Garcia Zarate, startled, threw it in the water and left the area quickly, not knowing that anyone had been hit by the bullets, Gonzalez said.

He was arrested around an hour later about a mile away, after witnesses reported seeing him leaving the scene. The gun used in the shooting, which had been stolen from a Bureau of Land Management Agent’s car a few days earlier, was later recovered from the water.

Garcia brandished the murder weapon in front of jurors and argued the gun, a .40 caliber Sig Sauer, was in good condition and is designed to be difficult to fire accidentally:

“It’s a very reliable, high quality gun. … It’s not the kind of gun that’s going to go off by accident. … He knew he had a gun, he meant to conceal it, he meant to shoot people on Pier 14 and he ended up killing Kate Steinle.”

Gonzalez, however, said the gun is designed for use as an emergency backup weapon by law enforcement. It does not have a safety switch and is known to have a “hair trigger,” making it “inherently dangerous” for anyone without training to handle it, he said.

There is no evidence that Garcia Zarate stole the gun, that he possessed it in the days leading up to the shooting or that anyone saw him holding it prior to the shooting, Gonzalez said.

Nor did he have a violent history or the kind of firearms experience necessary to have struck Steinle from a distance of around 90 feet given that ballistics evidence shows the bullet bounced off the ground before hitting her, Gonzalez said:

“Only a freakish ricochet which altered the course of the bullet caused this tragedy. … There has never been a ricochet charged as a murder in San Francisco history. An expert marksman couldn’t make this shot if he tried.”

Garcia argued that the ricochet could have occurred because Garcia Zarate was aiming at Steinle or other people in the area but fired before the barrel was all the way up and in position.

Garcia Zarate, who speaks little English, confessed to the shooting in an interview with police but also gave confusing and sometimes inaccurate statements, such as misstating the distance between himself and Steinle and saying he walked past her when he didn’t.

He gave no motive for the shooting, saying only “I don’t know” and “I don’t remember” repeatedly, although he did at one point suggest he was aiming at a seal or other animal. Gonzalez said that he repeatedly told police in the interview that the gun went off in his hands and that he threw it in the water to make it stop.

Garcia Zarate’s trial has drawn national attention because of its ties to controversy over sanctuary city policies used by San Francisco and other cities that limit the cooperation of local law enforcement with federal immigration authorities.

San Francisco officials had released Garcia Zarate, an undocumented immigrant, from jail months before the shooting after a minor drug charge was dismissed without notifying federal immigration authorities, as is the city’s practice for most cases.

Garcia did not mention Garcia Zarate’s immigration status this morning but Gonzalez did, portraying him as a poor homeless man with a second-grade education who largely kept to himself for fear of being deported.

“If this had happened to a college student, to a Swedish tourist, would they be charged with murder?” Gonzalez asked the jury?

Evidence began Monday with brief testimony from Steinle’s father, who was present when she was killed, and will continue Tuesday morning.

Garcia Zarate remains in custody without bail during the trial.