Defense attorney: Steinle case ‘should never have been charged'

- SAN FRANCISCO (BCN) The man accused of killing Kate Steinle on San Francisco's Pier 14 
should never have been charged with a crime, much less with murder, Matt Gonzalez, chief attorney for the public defender's office, told jurors today in closing arguments.

Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, a 45-year-old homeless Mexican citizen, was arrested around an hour after Steinle's July 1, 2015 shooting death and is on trial for murder, as well as assault with a deadly weapon and being a felon in possession of a firearm.

Defense attorneys Gonzalez and Francisco Ugarte have argued during the trial that the shooting was an accident, occurring after Garcia Zarate found the gun on the pier wrapped in a piece of cloth and picked it up.

In closing arguments this afternoon, Gonzalez said Garcia Zarate did not know Steinle and had no motive to want to hurt her. He told jurors prosecutors had failed to prove that he acted with malice or intent when the gun fired.

"The case should never have been charged," Gonzalez said. "If it  were to be charged, it should have been charged as a manslaughter. The only question in front of you should be is this a case of manslaughter or a not guilty verdict."

Jurors are being asked to consider first and second-degree murder verdicts as well as involuntary manslaughter.

No one saw Garcia Zarate fire the single shot that struck Steinle, a 32-year-old Pleasanton native who lived in San Francisco, in the back as she walked on the pier with her father and a family friend.

Nor did anyone report seeing him with the gun before the shooting.

Key to the defense case is the fact that the bullet ricocheted off the pier 12 feet in front of where Garcia Zarate sat in a chair before it struck Steinle around 90 feet away. The defense presented testimony from experts during the trial who said the shooting bore the hallmarks of an unintentional discharge and that the bullet did not travel in a straight line.

Prosecutor Diana Garcia earlier today described Garcia Zarate as having sat on the pier planning to shoot someone for more than 20 minutes before he fired.

"He was playing his own secret version of Russian roulette," Garcia said, painting the shooting as a calculated "game" on the part of Garcia Zarate.

She cited testimony from one witness who said he appeared to be smiling or laughing to himself as evidence that he had decided in advance to shoot someone. Defense attorneys have noted that same witness failed to mention the laughter to police after the shooting and no other witness 
reported it.

Gonzalez said that the ricochet made it unlikely that Garcia Zarate had planned the shooting in advance. He has emphasized the difficulty of the shot even for an expert marksman.

"I think the prosecution goes deeper and deeper into a theory they can't prove" because they need to prove malice to get to a murder verdict, Gonzalez told jurors.

Defense attorneys have argued that Garcia Zarate found the gun on the pier and showed jurors video footage of a group of people gathered at the same seat shortly before he arrived on scene.

They suggested the gun could have come from those people.

Garcia scoffed at that theory, arguing instead that the gun was probably in Garcia Zarate's pockets before the shooting. She demonstrated that the pockets were large enough to hold a gun, but did not present any evidence showing the gun had been in them.

The gun itself, which was stolen from a U.S. Bureau of Land Management's vehicle several days before the shooting, has become a key issue in the case.

Gonzalez has argued that it could have gone off accidentally if mishandled and presented expert testimony supporting his case, while Garcia today said "the only way a bullet can be fired is if the trigger is pulled."

Garcia Zarate confessed to firing the gun during an interrogation after the shooting, but also told police several times that the gun went off by itself and that he had found it on the pier. The interrogation included a number of confusing and contradictory statements and falsehoods.

Garcia said the lies showed he was conscious of his guilt, as did his actions in throwing the gun into the water and leaving the scene immediately after the shooting.

"Whatever you think of his cognitive ability, he lies where it counts," she said.

Garcia Zarate's case triggered national controversy because he was released from jail in San Francisco a few months before the shooting without notification to federal immigration authorities despite a pending immigration detainer request.

The case became part of the federal election debate when Donald Trump and other Republicans used it as a reason to attack Sanctuary City policies used by San Francisco and many other cities to limit the cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration authorities.

Garcia Zarate has prior convictions for a drug charge and for reentering the country after deportation. He had just completed a federal prison sentence for reentering the country after deportation when he was transferred to San Francisco by federal authorities based on a warrant for a marijuana charge, but that charge was dismissed by San Francisco prosecutors after he arrived.

Garcia Zarate's immigration status has not played a role in the case presented by prosecutors.

Gonzalez is expected to wrap up closing arguments Tuesday morning, and Garcia may present a rebuttal argument before the jurors begin deliberations.

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