Undocumented immigrant not guilty of murder in polarizing San Francisco case

A San Francisco jury found an undocumented immigrant not guilty of murder Thursday in a case that sparked national debate about sanctuary cities and U.S. immigration policy.

Jose Ines Garcia Zarate had been deported five times and was wanted for a sixth deportation when Kate Steinle, 32, was fatally shot in the back in July 2015. Garcia Zarate didn’t deny shooting Steinle and said it was an accident.

The jury of six men and six women — including three immigrants — found Garcia Zarate not guilty of homicide. Steinle was killed while posing for pictures with her father on a San Francisco pier.

Despite being acquitted of murder, Garcia Zarate, 54, was found guilty of being a felon in possession of a firearm.

Before the shooting, the San Francisco sheriff’s department had released him from jail despite a federal immigration request to detain him for deportation. San Francisco’s “sanctuary city” law limits cooperation with U.S. immigration authorities.

The case remains politically charged. An hour after the verdict, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions released a statement, saying that sanctuary cities are causing harm to the American people.

“When jurisdictions choose to return criminal aliens to the streets rather than turning them over to federal immigration authorities, they put the public’s safety at risk,” Sessions said. “San Francisco’s decision to protect criminal aliens led to the preventable and heartbreaking death of Kate Steinle . . . I urge the leaders of the nation’s communities to reflect on the outcome of this case and consider carefully the harm they are doing to their citizens by refusing to cooperate with federal law enforcement officers.”

And it appears that finally, Garcia Zarate will be deported. U.S. immigration officials said late Thursday that they will expel him from the U.S.

Garcia Zarate’s lawyer, Matt Gonzalez, had argued that the defendant wasn’t criminally responsible because he found the .40-caliber Sig Sauer and wasn’t aware it was a gun when it accidentally went off.

San Francisco Deputy District Attorney Diana Garcia said during the trial that she didn’t know why Garcia Zarate fired the weapon, but he created a risk of death by bringing the firearm to the pier and twirling around on a chair for at least 20 minutes before he fired.

“He did kill someone. He took the life of a young, vibrant, beautiful, cherished woman by the name of Kate Steinle,” she said.

Gonzalez said in his closing argument that he knows it’s difficult to believe Garcia Zarate found an object that turned out to be a weapon, which fired when he picked it up.

But he told jurors that Garcia Zarate had no motivation to kill Steinle and that as awful as her death was, “nothing you do is going to fix that.”

The bullet ricocheted on the pier’s concrete walkway before it struck Steinle.

The gun was stolen from the SUV of a U.S. Bureau of Land Management ranger that was parked in San Francisco. The city has been plagued by an epidemic of car burglaries in recent years.

Before the shooting, Garcia Zarate had finished a federal prison sentence for illegal re-entry into the United States and had been transferred to San Francisco’s jail in March 2015 to face a 20-year-old charge for selling marijuana.

The sheriff’s department released him a few days later after prosecutors dropped the marijuana charge, despite a request from federal immigration officials to detain him for deportation.

President Donald Trump said during the presidential campaign that Steinle’s death was another reason the United States needed to build a wall on its southern border and tighten its immigration policies.

Trump signed an executive order to withhold funding from sanctuary cities, but a federal judge recently blocked it in a lawsuit from two California counties, San Francisco and Santa Clara. The administration has appealed.

San Francisco became a sanctuary city in 1989. A local ordinance prohibits employees from helping Immigration and Customs Enforcement with immigration investigations or arrests “unless such help is required by federal or state law or a warrant.”

Zarate most recently served five years in a federal prison in Victorville, Calif. When he was released, ICE sent him to San Francisco on March 26, 2015, for a 1995 warrant accusing him of selling $20 worth of marijuana.

ICE also requested an immigration detainer so the agency would be notified if he was released.

The charges were dropped the next day. On April 15, 2015, Zarate was freed from the San Francisco County Jail. Freya Horne, chief legal counsel to the county sheriff who runs the jail, told CNN that he was let go because there was no legal cause to detain the suspect.

At the time, former sheriff Ross Mirkarimi defended releasing Zarate, who was held two weeks longer than required by the department’s rules, but ICE hadn’t placed a warrant or court order against Zarate.

“ICE knew that he had been deported five times,” Mirkarimi has said.

Gillian Christensen, an ICE spokesperson, has said the detainer wasn’t honored.

“Her death was preventable — and it should have been prevented,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in July. “She would still be alive today if her killer had been imprisoned or deported, as he should have been.”

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