Gascon takes ‘responsibility’ for Garcia Zarate acquittal

San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón Tuesday defended the work of prosecutors following last week’s acquittal of Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, the man charged with murder in the fatal shooting of Kate Steinle, and said the blame for any failure in the case should rest with him.

Jurors on Thursday found Garcia Zarate, a 45-year-old homeless Mexican citizen, not guilty of murder and assault with a deadly weapon in the July 1, 2015 shooting of Steinle, a 32-year-old Pleasanton native and San Francisco resident who was killed as she walked on Pier 14 with her father.

He was convicted of one count of being a felon in possession of a firearm.

Nationally, the verdict provoked a furor, particularly among those on the right seeking to promote anti-immigration policies, prompting some internet commenters to launch a #boycottSF hashtag.

Locally, criticism has centered on the decision by prosecutors in closing arguments to ask jurors to consider a first-degree murder verdict rather than the second-degree case that many felt was warranted. First-degree murder requires a degree of premeditation, while second-degree murder can apply to deaths caused by committing an inherently dangerous act, such as firing a gun in a crowded area.

Gascón Tuesday said Judge James Feng had agreed there was sufficient evidence to instruct jurors on both first and second-degree murder as well as involuntary manslaughter:

“We felt that we had evidence of a murder case. If we had a similar case presented to us today we would proceed very much the same way that we did in this case. … If there was any failure in the preparation or presentation of this case, the responsibility is mine and mine alone.”

,Gascon praised the work of prosecutor Diana Garcia and her team.

Defense attorneys were able to argue that the shooting was accidental based on evidence showing the bullet had ricocheted off the pier before it struck Steinle, making it unclear whether the gun had been aimed in her direction. They argued that he had found the gun on the pier, wrapped in a piece of cloth, and that it had gone off when he picked it up to investigate.

Garcia worked to portray Garcia Zarate as a killer playing his own “secret game of Russian roulette” as he considered shooting people on the pier, but no witnesses actually saw him pointing the gun or firing. Defense attorneys called into question the testimony of a witness who described him as looking at people oddly and laughing before the shooting.

There was also no evidence proving that Garcia Zarate possessed the gun before he stepped on to the pier or had any connection to its theft in an auto burglary several days earlier, a weakness in the case defense attorneys were able to exploit.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement officials used the verdict as an opportunity to slam San Francisco’s Sanctuary City policies, which limit the cooperation between local law enforcement and immigration authorities in order to encourage immigrants to report crimes and cooperate with police.

President Donald Trump tweeted several times about the verdict on Thursday and Friday, calling it “disgraceful” and using it as an opportunity to promote his proposal for a border wall with Mexico and slam Democrats as weak on crime.

Gascon said he has largely chosen to refrain from public comment on the case out of deference to the feelings of the Steinle family, who have said they are pained by seeing their daughter’s death being used for political purposes.

Ultimately, Gascón said that while he disagreed with the verdict, he respected the work of the jury:

“I think it’s important for the president of the United States to remember that this is a nation of laws and part of being a nation of laws is that we respect the legal process even when we might be unhappy with the outcome.”

And while he acknowledged that the verdict might come into play in his reelection campaign in 2019, he said that he thought voters were “smarter and wiser” than that:

“At the end of the day, it’s going to be up to the electorate.”

The public defender’s office has said it plans to appeal Garcia Zarate’s conviction for being a felon in possession of a firearm.

He is expected to be sentenced on that conviction on Dec. 14 to a sentence of either 16 months, two years or three years, depending on the judge’s ruling.