Whenever someone is killed, it is a tragic moment for that person’s family and community. They cry out for justice and look to our law enforcement system to give it to them.
But when that killing involves a politically sensitive subject, it can become the flashpoint for a rancorous debate. When one woman was killed in the midst of a campaign season, it would become the focal point of an entire nation…
Stroll On The Pier
On a Wednesday in July, a woman named Kate was walking along a pier in the Embarcadero district of San Francisco. The sky was overcast but they were still enjoying the warm weather and each other’s company. That would all change in an instant.
Without warning, there was a loud “pop” and suddenly, Kate was screaming. She collapsed to the pavement as her clothing began to soak with blood. In a panic, her father called for help. A small crowd began to gather as he tried to save his daughter’s life by performing CPR…
Kate had been shot. As an ambulance rushed to the scene, Kate’s father and friend could only have been thinking about saving her life. They couldn’t have possibly imagined that, when Kate Steinle died of her wounds in the hospital 2 hours later, it would set off a political debate on a national scale.
The focal point of that debate was a man standing roughly 90 feet away from Kate when the shot went off. Jose Inez Garcia Zarate, the man who had fired the bullet that struck Kate, had illegally entered the country from Mexico, his home country…
Garcia Zarate was arrested by the San Francisco Police Department about an hour after Kate was shot and the gun he’d fired was recovered the next day. It turned out that Garcia Zarate was in the country illegally after having been deported 5 times previously over the past 2 and a half decades.
From One Jail to the Next
In March of 2015, Garcia Zarate had just completed his latest prison term in San Bernardino County for entering the country without the proper documents. It was then that the United States Bureau of Prisons had turned Garcia Zarate over to San Francisco authorities for an outstanding drug warrant from 20 years ago for the sale and possession of marijuana…
The district attorney decided to drop the marijuana charges against Garcia Zarate. U. S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had issued a detainer request for Garcia Zarate. An ICE detainer is a written request that a local law enforcement agency detain someone for up to an additional 48 hours after they would normally be released so ICE can pick them up.
There has been debate over ICE’s use of detainers over the last few years. Some argue they are a necessary tool for the federal agency to effectively enforce immigration laws. Others argue that because they require people to be imprisoned without due process, sometimes even without any charges against them, is unconstitutional…
In 2013, San Francisco passed the “Due Process for All” ordinance saying that the city of San Francisco would only cooperate with ICE requests to detain someone past their normal release date if they had current violent felony charges and past violent felony convictions, making it a “sanctuary city.”
Out on the Streets
When the charges against Garcia Zarate were dropped, he had no outstanding warrants and so he was released. When information about Kate’s killing and Garcia Zarate’s legal status reached the news, the United States was in the midst of the 2016 presidential election. The story became a lightning rod for immigration policy…
Much Criticized Policy
While various candidates such as Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush blamed San Francisco’s sanctuary city policies for Kate Steinle’s death, the candidate who stood out most on this issue was Donald Trump.
Not Their Best
Just two weeks prior to Kate’s death, he announced his candidacy for president of the United States with a now-famous speech attacking migrants from Mexico. In it he said “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
Distinguished From The Crowd
As the story of Steinle’s death took over the news cycle, Trump’s especially tough stance on illegal immigration helped propel him to the front of the field in the Republican primary and, eventually, into the White House.
What Really Happened
But what about the actual case? Why had Garcia Zarate shot Kate Steinle? Garcia Zarate claimed that when he was sitting on a bench at the pier, he noticed an object wrapped in a t-shirt underneath the bench. When he picked up what turned out to be a cloth-wrapped .40 caliber handgun, it had accidentally discharged. He was saying that Kate’s death was an accident.
When investigators inspected the scene of the crime, they found a point in the concrete where the bullet had ricocheted approximately a dozen feet from where Garcia Zarate was when the shot went off, before travelling approximately 80 more feet where it struck Kate. At the very least, that meant that Garcia Zarate wasn’t aiming directly at her when the gun went off.
They also found that the .40 caliber handgun Garcia Zarate fired belonged to a U.S. Bureau of Land Management ranger. The handgun had been stolen out of his car where he’d left it in an unsecured backpack while eating dinner with his family…
Garcia Zarate was charged with murder and being a felon in possession of a firearm. If found guilty he could have faced a life sentence without the possibility of parole. The prosecution claimed that Garcia Zarate brought the handgun to the pier and had intentionally aimed at Kate while the defense claimed, as Garcia Zarate stated earlier, that he’d found the gun and it went off accidentally.
After a lengthy trial and 5 days of deliberation, the jury found Garcia Zarate not guilty of murder but they did find him guilty of the firearms possession charge. His acquittal reignited the political firestorm that had originally surrounded the case in 2015…
The President Weighs In
President Trump tweeted about the case, saying “A disgraceful verdict in the Kate Steinle case! No wonder the people of our Country are so angry with Illegal Immigration.” There were many calls by various other politicians blaming federal immigration policy for Kate’s death, as well as renewed calls for the construction of the president’s proposed border wall with Mexico.
Not the Focus
It is worth noting that Garcia Zarate’s immigration status was only briefly mentioned during the trial. While he was in the country illegally, he was on trial specifically for murder and firearms possession charges, which were technically unrelated. Since his acquittal on the state charges, the federal government has charged Zarate with firearms charges related to the same incident and he is still wanted for deportation.