Defense attorneys rested their case Thursday in the trial of the man charged with shooting and killing Kate Steinle on San Francisco's Pier 14 after presenting testimony from a translator who brought into question parts of the interrogation conducted by police.
Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, 45, is on trial for second-degree murder in the death of Steinle, a 32-year-old San Francisco resident who was walking on the pier on July 1, 2015 with her family when she was struck, seemingly at random, by a single bullet to the back.
Prosecutor Diana Garcia has not presented a motive for the shooting, and is not required to prove that Garcia Zarate intended to kill Steinle for a second-degree murder charge, but she does have to prove that he fired the gun intentionally. She has pointed to the fact that he threw the gun into the water after it fired and left the scene quickly as evidence of his guilt.
While defense attorneys do not dispute that Garcia Zarate was holding the gun, a semi-automatic pistol that had been stolen from a U.S. Bureau of Land Management ranger's vehicle days earlier, they have argued that the shooting was accidental. Garcia Zarate, a homeless undocumented immigrant with a history of deportations and drug charges, fled the area because he was startled and had reason to try to avoid attention, they argue.
During a police interrogation after the shooting, Garcia Zarate, speaking primarily through a Spanish interpreter, gave police a number of inconsistent and confusing statements, some of which conflict with the physical evidence in the case. At some points he appeared to agree he fired the gun, even telling officers he was shooting at a sea lion on the pier, while at other points he described the gun as going off by itself.
However a translator presented as an expert witness for the defense today said the police translator had consistently mistranslated the word "trigger" during the interrogation.
Instead of asking Garcia Zarate if he had pulled the trigger, as officers asked him in English, the translator asked if he had fired the gun, according to translator Fanny Suarez, a trained legal interpreter and investigator for the public defender's office.
"The issue of whether Mr. Garcia Zarate admitted to pulling trigger is a very key issue in this case, and the term 'pull the trigger' literally was never translated to him," defense attorney Francisco Ugarte said outside of court.
Urgarte and Matt Gonzalez, chief attorney for the public defender's office, have presented seven defense witnesses this week including two firearm experts who testified that the bullet ricocheted off the pier before it struck Steinle and that the shooting appeared likely to be accidental.
They also presented a video enhancement expert who walked jurors through footage showing a group of people lingering near the seat on the pier where Garcia Zarate sat shortly before he arrived.
Defense attorneys have said that Garcia Zarate found the gun on the pier and fired it accidentally when picking it up to investigate. They used this footage to demonstrate that the gun could have been left there shortly before his arrival.
Garcia did not present any evidence linking Garcia Zarate with the gun's theft or demonstrating that he possessed it prior to the shooting, but did have a witness demonstrate to jurors that it could have fit into one of his pockets.
Steinle's shooting draw national attention after it became known that Garcia Zarate had been released from a city jail several months earlier without notification to federal authorities. Republicans including then-presidential candidate Donald Trump used the shooting as a way to attack San Francisco's Sanctuary City policies, which limit communication and cooperation between local law enforcement and immigration authorities.
Steinle's family filed a lawsuit against the city over Garcia Zarate's release but that case has since been dismissed. Despite the controversy, Garcia Zarate's immigration status has not played a role in the trial.
Somewhat more relevant to the case have been concerns over ongoing problems with auto burglaries in San Francisco and the theft of firearms from law enforcement. Three law enforcement officers have had firearms stolen from them in the city since August alone, and one of those guns, a personal weapon taken from a San Francisco police officer's car, has since been involved in a homicide.
Defense attorneys have drawn attention to the role of the BLM ranger in the case, noting that if he had properly secured his weapon Steinle would still be alive. Steinle's family also has a lawsuit pending against federal authorities over the gun's loss.
Gonzalez said his team was satisfied with the case they had presented. The prosecution will present at least one rebuttal witness on Monday and closing arguments are scheduled for the following Monday, Nov. 20.
While jurors may have the option of convicting Garcia Zarate of a lesser offense such as manslaughter, Gonzalez today said that was not his aim.
"We're not trying ot get Mr. Garcia Zarate convicted of manslaughter, our defense is that he's not guilty because it was an accident," he said. "When he picked up this object he did not know what it was and it fired."