One criminal case is over, and an undocumented immigrant is slated for deportation. But for Kate Steinle’s parents, the legal battle over who is responsible for their daughter’s death is just entering its next phase.
Jose Ines Garcia Zarate was sentenced Friday to time served for unlawful possession of a firearm, the Associated Press reported, following a jury’s decision in November to reject murder charges against the Mexican national for firing a bullet that killed Steinle as she strolled down a San Francisco pier in 2015.
The acquittal provoked a fresh flurry of protest including from President Trump, who had used Steinle on the campaign trail to make the case for a border wall, an end to sanctuary cities and stricter immigration policy.
But Steinle family attorney Frank Pitre said after the trial that there had always been “two chairs missing on the defense table.”
Steinle’s parents want to see the city and county of San Francisco and its former sheriff pay for the fatal shooting, because they adopted policies that the family says allowed Garcia Zarate, who already had been deported five times, to keep walking the streets of San Francisco.
The Steinle family’s lawyers have turned their attention to a pair of lawsuits that describe the woman’s death as a failure on multiple fronts: In addition to San Francisco and its sheriff, they blame federal immigration agents who failed to issue a warrant for Garcia Zarate’s deportation and the federal agency that owned the handgun that killed Steinle after it was stolen from an agent’s car.
“KATE’s fate was sealed when a U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management Ranger failed to properly secure and/or store a government-issued firearm while it was left in an unoccupied vehicle in a high auto-theft neighborhood,” the Steinles’ lawsuit states.
A federal judge has dismissed the family’s case against U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, San Francisco and the county’s then-Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, but said the case against the Bureau of Land Management could proceed because its employee’s negligence contributed to Steinle’s death. The family’s attorneys will head to court this month in hope of securing a date for the trial against the BLM. They’re also appealing the judge’s ruling in the case against San Francisco and Mirkarimi.
The wrongful death cases resurrect the political debate about what failed Steinle: local immigration policies or federal mismanagement of guns?
President Trump — who had launched his presidential campaign two weeks before Steinle’s killing with a speech decrying Mexican immigrants as criminals and calling for a border wall — quickly fixated on the death of “beautiful Kate.” He said the case is proof that “sanctuary city” policies, which restrict local officials from assisting in enforcement of immigration laws, are dangerous and must be stopped.
Critics say his declarations of Garcia Zarate’s guilt and what it meant skewed the public’s understanding of the facts.
The 12-member jury in San Francisco Superior Court was tasked with deciding whether Garcia Zarate meant to shoot Steinle. His prior criminal record — including multiple convictions for drug charges and for reentering the country illegally — were never part of the discussion.
“We put aside politics, immigration status, sanctuary cities — all of it we put aside for our decision,” said one juror, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of being harmed by those angry with the verdict.
When the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department released Garcia Zarate on a dropped marijuana charge in April 2015, he had no money, no cellphone and no place to live. Three months later, he was wandering around the pier — wearing two pairs of pants, with cracker crumbs in his pocket and one of his shoes missing its lace — when he found and picked up the stolen handgun.
It went off. The defense said a single bullet hit the ground 12 feet away and ricocheted 78 feet, the length of a tennis court, into Steinle’s back.
The jury quickly discarded the first- and second-degree murder charges, which require premeditation, the juror said. It decided there was no evidence of involuntary manslaughter either, because the prosecution was unable to prove Garcia Zarate behaved recklessly.
“I think most people who were not in that courtroom do not understand the situation,” said Phil Van Stockum, a mechanical engineer in San Francisco and an alternate juror in the trial. “The defendants’ guilt in this case was just not related to the law on immigration.”
Trump and conservative politicians and pundits condemned the jury’s acquittals as an example of liberal politics prioritizing immigrants over public safety.
The Trump administration has filed new immigration and weapon charges against Garcia Zarate, who AP reported will be taken into federal custody.
As in the criminal case, the gun that Garcia Zarate found in a rag on the pier has been central so far in the wrongful death lawsuit the Steinle family filed in 2016.
John Woychowski, a ranger for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, left the loaded firearm in a backpack in his car in June 2015 while he ate lunch at a restaurant with his girlfriend and her children.
Judge Joseph Spero determined that was a critical failure in the lead up to Steinle’s death and dismissed the claims against all the defendants except the BLM.
San Francisco wasn’t at fault, he said, because it didn’t have to share Garcia Zarate’s release date with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and ICE didn’t have to pick him up. But the weapon was supposed to be secured at all times, he said.
“A handgun is indisputably capable of inflicting serious injury and damage — as a deadly weapon, that is its very purpose,” Spero wrote in a decision last January. The ranger, the judge said, “had a duty to better secure his handgun against theft.”
Sarah Webster, a BLM spokeswoman, declined to comment on Woychowski or say whether the agency updated its firearms security policies after Steinle’s death.
More than 500 federal firearms have been lost since fiscal year 2006, some of which have turned up in homicides and other crimes, according to federal records. In September 2016, California passed a bill requiring law enforcement officials to lock their firearms stored in vehicles either in trunks or in lockboxes out of view or face a fine of up to $1,000.
It is unclear who stole Woychowski’s gun and how it got to the pier. Garcia Zarate was never accused of stealing it.
“If you don’t have a fully loaded gun sitting out there on the pier . . . you don’t have this incident,” said Francisco Ugarte, a lawyer who represented Garcia Zarate in the criminal case with lead public defender Matt Gonzalez. “Any person could have picked up that rag on the pier. It could have been the Department of Public Works cleaning up the pier. It could have been a child. Or it could have been another homeless person.”
But ICE has consistently placed the blame for Steinle’s death on San Francisco’s “sanctuary city” policy.
ICE files detainers requesting that jurisdictions hold undocumented immigrants for up to 48 hours so agents can pick them up. But in areas that refuse, the agency asks at least to be notified of their release. San Francisco’s sheriff at the time ignored the request.
After the Garcia Zarate’s acquittal, then-San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee reasserted that the city “is and always will be a sanctuary city.” But Lee, who died last month , also has criticized then-San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi’s handling of the matter.
“San Francisco’s Sanctuary City ordinance allows for communication with federal law enforcement regarding convicted felons,” Lee said in a statement the day after Steinle’s death.
But Spero, the judge who dismissed the Steinle’s lawsuit against San Francisco and Mirkarimi, found the sheriff was not out of bounds, since “no law required the Sheriff‘s Department to share [Garcia Zarate]‘s release date with ICE.”
In an interview with The Washington Post last month, Mirkarimi reiterated that fact and noted that ICE was well-versed in his policy.
The Steinles’ appeal of Spero’s decision is being heard by the 9th Circuit Court. Pitre, the family’s lawyer, said the sheriff’s department does bear part of the blame as Mirkarimi was acting outside of what the sanctuary city policy stipulates.
“That’s why I have a real problem when we talk about responsibility for Kate’s death [and the conversation] looks solely at a hapless individual who was playing with a weapon that went off,” he said, “without looking at who was responsible for that gun being in his hands, and who is responsible for going beyond his authority in deciding not to share information on who was in his custody.”