San Francisco Chronicle
Attorneys urge Biden to drop federal charges in Steinle case
Attorneys who defended the man acquitted of murder charges in the 2015 shooting death of Kate Steinle are calling on President Joe Biden’s administration to drop the federal charges against their former client, arguing that his continued incarceration is a product of political furor.
In an open letter posted this week on the blogging site Medium, San Francisco public defenders Matt Gonzalez and Francisco Ugarte recalled the bitterly politicized debate surrounding Jose Ines Garcia Zarate’s status as an undocumented immigrant, saying that’s what continues to hold him behind bars — not an earnest quest for justice.
While Garcia Zarate’s criminal trial centered on the facts surrounding the shooting, the case galvanized critics who blamed Steinle’s death on lax immigration enforcement, and who held up the case as a referendum on San Francisco’s sanctuary city policies.
Among the most vocal detractors was former President Donald Trump, who called Garcia Zarate’s acquittal a “complete travesty of justice.”
“There was a racial animus that Trump took advantage of
to disparage Mexican immigrants,” Ugarte said in an interview with The Chronicle. “It worked for him in 2016, and it’s time to really evaluate what this case is about.”
In 2017, a San Francisco jury found Garcia Zarate not guilty of murder and assault charges after defense attorneys argued that a gun Garcia Zarate found on Pier 14 wrapped in a T-shirt went off accidentally. The bullet ricocheted on the concrete pier before it struck Steinle in the back.
The jury convicted him only of being a felon in possession of a gun, a decision that a state appeals court later overturned. The higher court said the jury should have been allowed to decide whether Garcia Zarate had only “momentary possession” of the weapon, which would not have been a crime.
Garcia Zarate remains in custody, however, after a federal grand jury indicted him on charges of being a felon in possession of a firearm and ammunition and being an undocumented immigrant in possession of a firearm and ammunition. The indictment came days after the San Francisco jury’s verdict.
“The state-court ruling has no legal effect on the federal prosecution, which will continue,” former U.S. Attorney David Anderson said in September 2019 following the appellate court decision. “A repeatedly deported, previously convicted felon has no right to possess a firearm under federal law, even if California extends him sanctuary.”
The trial has since been delayed due to questions over Garcia Zarate’s competency.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office did not immediately respond to The Chronicle’s request for comment on Thursday. Attempts to reach attorneys for the Steinle family were not successful.
Gonzalez and Ugarte said that rather than evaluate the jury’s findings, Trump and then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions “rushed to keep Garcia Zarate in custody.”
“Thus far, their efforts are working,” their letter argued. “What they could not change, however, is that Garcia Zarate is factually innocent of the charges, including the federal indictment alleging gun possession.”