A member of the jury in the Kate Steinle murder trial said the prosecution failed to prove that Jose Ines Garcia Zarate intentionally killed the 32-year-old woman and believes the evidence showed that shooting was a "freak accident."
In an exclusive interview with NBC Bay Area, the juror, who did not wish to be identified, talked about the panel's decision to acquit the undocumented Mexican national.
He said the backlash from critics — including President Donald Trump — who have pointed to the case as evidence of the need for tougher immigration policies, propelled him to speak out.
"If I was not a juror on this trial, I would probably think the same way: 'Why did you let him go free?'" said the juror. "But again, the reason is, they could not prove to us that he intentionally killed her. And through all the evidence, I really think that it was a freak accident."
San Francisco Deputy District Attorney Diana Garcia argued the July 2015 shooting on Pier 14 was murder. The jury sided with the defense, which argued that the shooting was an accident, and found him guilty only of being a felon in possession of a firearm.
When the jury went into deliberations, the juror recalled early on deciding against a first degree or second degree murder conviction.
He said his biggest concern with the manslaughter charge was regarding the word "brandishing," and whether Garcia Zarate was waving the gun in a threatening manner or in anger. He said the prosecution did not present any proof that Garcia Zarate was threatening anyone with the gun.
“During the trial they could not prove that," he said. "All the videos we saw never, not even one video showed that he was pointing the gun at her. So I think it was very weak."
Hadar Aviram, a professor at UC Hastings College of the Law, said brandishing a weapon, or taking it out in a menacing manner, would help the prosecution fit its script.
"I think you would have to prove that there had been some form of carelessness with the weapon, that the defendant had to have done something with the weapon that was more careless than what a reasonable person would do," Aviram said. "And apparently the jury did not find that that was the case."
The juror said the panel simply made a decision based on the evidence they saw.
"I am comfortable with my decision," the juror said. "I can put my head on a pillow and sleep well thinking that I made the right decision."
During his weekly address Sunday, Trump spoke about the trial and Garcia Zarate.
"He was free to harm an innocent American because our leaders refuse to protect our border and because San Francisco is a sanctuary city," the president said.
The juror said they were not allowed to consider the defendant’s prior record or politics, including sanctuary cities.
Garcia Zarate, who had been deported five times and was awaiting deportation for a sixth time, was released by the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department weeks before Steinle was shot and killed, despite a request from federal authorities to detain him. At the time, the sheriff cited the city’s "sanctuary" policy as a reason for his discharge.
The juror said he has no regrets but also didn’t realize the toll the trial took on him until it was over.
"It was very hard on me," he said. "When we finished the trial, I left the court, walking to my car, I was in tears. Because I felt the pressure coming off my back. Because I could talk to people then, I was in tears."