The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
This week, a California jury acquitted Jose Ines Garcia Zarate of the murder of Kate Steinle. Garcia Zarate was accused of shooting Steinle in the back. Garcia Zarate claimed he had just discovered the gun and the shooting was accidental. The jury acquitted Garcia Zarate of the murder charge, as well as the lesser included offenses, but found him guilty of being a felon in possession of a firearm. As a consequence, Garcia Zarate is likely to be deported.
President Trump is reportedly outraged by the verdict, calling it a "travesty of justice," as are anti-immigration activists. Garcia Zarate is an unlawfully present immigrant who had been deported from the country five times and would have been deported a sixth time were it not for San Francisco's "sanctuary" policy of not cooperating with federal immigration officials. The Steinle killing is often cited as a reason to oppose "sanctuary cities."
If the verdict in the Steinle killing trial is surprising, that's likely because most accounts of the surrounding events omitted pertinent details—details that made it more difficult for the prosecution to prove Garcia Zarate's intent to kill beyond a reasonable doubt. In addition, as Sara Rumpf explains, the prosecution likely mishandled at trial.
In a detailed write-up of the verdict, the San Francisco Chronicle describes many details that have rarely or never been mentioned in the vast majority of the media coverage of this case. The main issue is that the defense was able to present a credible case that the shooting was an accident, and the prosecution aggressively overplayed their hand. Add in a misguided police interrogation strategy and you have reasonable doubt. …
[The prosecutors] pushed hard for a first degree murder verdict, which requires not only proving that the defendant killed the victim, but that he did it intentionally, and that it was premeditated (planned or thought out beforehand).
Focusing their strategy on the lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter would have allowed the prosecutors to simply argue that Garcia Zarate acted in a criminally negligent way that resulted in Steinle's death: he knew the object was a gun, he knew guns are dangerous, he should have known not to point it in the direction of people, etc.
Add to all of this that four-hour meandering police interrogation that allowed defense counsel to present their client as confused and intimidated by the police. Just one more little piece of the puzzle making it easier for defense counsel to portray their client as a naive fool who picked up a gun and caused a terrible accident rather than a vicious killer who stalked his victim.
For more legal background, see this post by prosecutor-by-day, blogger-by-night Patterico on California's homicide statutes and their relevance to this case.
There's no question Steinle's death was a tragedy, and it is fair to argue that but for San Francisco's refusal to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement she would be alive today, but the outrage over the jury's verdict seems to me to be entirely misplaced.