Judge orders extended competency evaluation for Garcia Zarate

U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria said the evaluation could result in Jose Inez Garcia Zarate taking medication that would enable him to be competent to stand trial.

A federal judge on Wednesday ordered a further competency evaluation of up to 45 days in a U.S. prison facility for an undocumented Mexican citizen accused of illegally possessing the gun that killed a woman on a San Francisco pier in 2015.

U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria said the evaluation could result in Jose Inez Garcia Zarate taking medication that would enable him to be competent to stand trial.

A recent three-hour evaluation by a psychiatrist concluded that Zarate is currently incompetent, but could be made able to undergo a trial if given medication, according to descriptions of that evaluation given by Chhabria and Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Cheng at a hearing in Chhabria's San Francisco courtroom.

Zarate faces federal charges of being an undocumented immigrant and an ex-felon in possession of the gun from which a ricocheting bullet struck and killed Kate Steinle on Pier 14 on July 1, 2015.

He contends that the shooting was an accident, that he didn't know a wrapped object he found under his chair was a gun and that he threw it in the water as soon as it fired. He was acquitted of murder and manslaughter charges in San Francisco Superior Court in 2017.

Chhabria delayed Zarate's federal trial and ordered the recent three-hour evaluation after concluding that Zarate didn't seem to understand the federal charges. 

A longer 30- to 45-day evaluation would provide an opportunity for Zarate to be prescribed medication and then be observed, Cheng said. 

Defense attorney Erica Treeby and Cheng both agreed to the plan, which Chhabria ordered after briefly closing his courtroom for a private discussion with Zarate.

Lead defense attorney Tony Serra has previously said he believes Zarate is competent and wants him to be able to go to trial because the alternative could be being held in a prison medical facility for long-term treatment. Serra has said he expects an acquittal.

The judge said at Wednesday's hearing that Zarate was formerly given medication while being held at Alameda County's Glenn Dyer Jail in Oakland, but "it appears inexplicably that they stopped treating him" when Zarate was moved to the county's Santa Rita Jail in Dublin.

Chhabria said it will be up to the medical evaluators to decide whether to prescribe medication for Zarate, but if the medication is prescribed and Zarate takes it, he may be able to go to trial.

Under federal law, the continued evaluation can last no more than 45 days. It would take place at a U.S. Bureau of Prisons facility in Seattle, Los Angeles or San Diego.

Chhabria also noted during the hearing that in an evaluation in a previous case a few years ago, Zarate was found to be competent to stand trial after being given medication.

The previous assessment was ordered by a federal judge in Texas in 2009, according to an order Chhabria issued last month. In that case, a medical evaluator diagnosed Zarate with schizophrenia and concluded he was competent to stand trial because he was properly medicated at the time, Chhabria said in the document.