Constitutional Law Criminal Law

Prosecutor Overreach and Actual Facts Led to Kate Steinle Case Acquittal

Some cases take on a bigger life. Some cases get caught up in a political firestorm. Sacco and Vanzetti, The Scopes trial, The Rosenbergs, Willie Horton, Rodney King to name a few. They end up being not about what actually happened but about some larger societal issue that is reflected in the case. Anarchists, Evolution, Communism, Parole, Police Brutality in the above examples. Few recent cases have been more manipulated than the murder of San Franciscan Kate Steinle. It was central mantra of the Trump Campaign. As her mother described it in the NY Times, Kate was beautiful, from the sanctuary city of San Francisco, the accused was an illegal immigrant with a lengthy criminal past who had been deported and returned illegally into the US, “a perfect storm for that man” Ms. Steinle said, referring to POTUS. So the acquittal of Jose Garcia Zarate has naturally prompted many, including the President of the United States, to vilify the jury and the verdict and call for a border wall. But if anyone is to blame in this case its the prosecution, who perhaps fearing being labeled “soft” responded to the hysteria surrounding the case by pushing for a charge of intentional murder even though the facts would never support such a charge.

The two facts no one disputes are that (1) Ms. Steinle was hit in the back of the head by a single bullet while she walked on the San Fran pier; and (2) The bullet that killed her was fired from a Sig Sauer handgun that was held by Mr. Garcia Zarate at the time of the discharge. But here are ten key facts most folks don’t know about the case that more than explain why the jury voted as it did:

1. To begin with, Ms. Steinle was not shot directly. The bullet from the gun hit the concrete ground first and ricocheted up striking Ms. Steinle;
2. The gun was stolen four days earlier from a Federal agent’s car that was parked in the area – none of the other items missing from the car was found on Mr. Garica Zarate, a homeless man living on the streets;
3. There was a video shown of a group of men suspiciously huddling around just a few hours before the shooting in the exact spot where Garcia Zarate told police he found the gun; the defns argued they could very well have wrapped and placed the gun at the location;
4.The Sig Sauer has a history of accidental firings.It’s an elite handgun intended for law enforcement and military personnel who may need to fire it with split second notice. It has a hair trigger in single-action mode. Even among well-trained users, it has a lengthy history of accidental discharges. In a four-year period (2012-2015), the New York City Police Department reported 10 accidental firings by officers involving SIG Sauers. Los Angeles County reported five involving SIG Sauers. From 2005 to January 2011, the San Francisco Police Department reported 29 accidental discharges (at the time SIG Sauers were its primary sidearm). If trained law enforcement officers are experiencing accidental misfires, Mr. Garcia Zarate’s claim that the gun accidentally fired when he picked up a cloth bundle containing the weapon is more credible;
5.The SIG Sauer in Lopez Sanchez’s case has three features prone to accidents:
A. No safety lever, making it perpetually ready for firing.
B. Manufacturer-issued trigger pull of 4.4 pounds of force (in single-action mode), which is among the lightest on the market.
C. An unlabeled de-cocking lever despite being essential to disengage the single-action mode. (The SIG Sauer safety manual urges “DO NOT THUMB THE HAMMER DOWN the consequences can be serious injury or death — only and ALWAYS use the de-cocking lever.”)The NYPD requires officers using SIG Sauers to disable its single-action function because the hair trigger is too dangerous. Those using the gun can only do so in double-action mode, which has a 10-pound trigger pull. The gun in this case as in single action mode.
6. While Garcia Zarate had a long criminal record, none of it was for violent crimes or robberies – they were mostly drug and vagrancy related;
7. San Francisco does not provide “sanctuary” to violent offenders; (And for the record “sanctuary” is in quotes because it is a misnomer – all so-called sanctuary cities do is not actively pursue deportation of non-violent illegal immigrants. They do not impede any law enforcement by the Federal agencies who of course have the sole exclusive jurisdiction to deport;
8. In accordance with the above, since Garcia Zarate was found guilty of being in illegal possession of a firearm, he will be detained and deported.
9. In his four hour long interrogation, Mr. Garcia Zarate appeared disoriented, rambling, confused and repeatedly intimidated by police strengthening the dense position that their client was just a fool who picked up a gun that was dangerous to handle and caused a terrible and horrific accident;
10. But most importantly – the prosecution inexplicably tried this case as an intentional murder case. They pushed hard for a first degree murder verdict, which requires not only proving that the defendant killed the victim, but that he did it intentionally, and that it was premeditated (planned or thought out beforehand). In their summation and arguments they did not mention to the jury that the jury could vote for a lesser-included offense of criminal negligence. The prosecution was afraid to suggest the lesser included offense because they lknew teh jury woudl likely have voted for it. But what would be wrong with that? After all criminal negligence fits the facts!

The recent discussion around wrongful conviction has highlighted the danger of prosecutorial overreach and this case is a classic example. Normally, however the overreach results in a n undeserved conviction. What was the difference here? Great lawyering by assistant public defender Matt Gonzalez, who attacked the prosecution’s theory that “Garcia Zarate intentionally brought the gun to the pier that day with the intent of doing harm, aimed the gun toward Steinle and pulled the trigger,” as the San Francisco Chronicle reported. That theory was unprovable beyond a reasonable doubt- remember that the bullet ricocheted off of the ground- and Gonzalez’s research into the Sig Sauer; his discovery of the video; and his ability to make the argument to the jury that his client was just an unfortunate sad sack and not a murderer resulted in the acquittal.

This jury deliberated for six days. For conservative pundits and the President to label their effort “disgraceful” among other negative adjectives is itself disgraceful. This jury did what the Constitution required – they listened to the evidence, they deliberated in good faith and they held the prosecution to its burden of proof. That’s how our system works and it worked right in Kate Steinle’s case. If you have anyone to blame, blame those who sought to make this case about something it was not and whose inflammatory rhetoric pushed the prosecution to press for a level of offense they could never establish.

Follow me on Twitter @oscarmichelen

4 replies on “Prosecutor Overreach and Actual Facts Led to Kate Steinle Case Acquittal”

Thank you for the clarification. In today’s society unfortunately, any well publicized crime is already decided over social media long before the real facts are presented. Prosecutorial overreach is usually political in nature vs judicial common sense.

Thank you for th insightful discussion of the case. Many of these facts have been left out and even as a defense ATty I had trouble understanding the acquittal. After reading your analysis it is crystal clear. Prosecutorial overteach and failure to be completely honest with a jury often leads to lesser convictions or acquittals of those charged because the prosecutor’s exaggeration of the actual facts can make skew the way the jury looks at all of the facts. Hats off to the defense team.

I do thank you for the effort but we live in a post-fact world populated by reality TV characters and lawyer dogs.

Next time the state should get one of those lawyer dogs to determine the appropriate charges.

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