The so-called sanctuary city debate was once again brought to the forefront of nation's conscious when a jury found a Mexican man not guilty of murder following the 2015 shooting death of a woman on a San Francisco pier.
Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, who had been deported five times and was awaiting deportation for a sixth time, had been released by the San Francisco Sheriff's Department weeks before Kate Steinle was shot and killed, despite a request from federal authorities to detain him.
More than two years after the shooting, a 12-member jury acquitted Garcia Zarate of first- and second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter, as well as assault with a semi-automatic weapon. He was found guilty of illegal firearms possession, which carries a sentence of 16 months to three years.
Legal analyst Dean Johnson spoke with NBC Bay Area to offer his insights on the verdict and what he believes will happen next to Garcia Zarate:
Why is there so much shock with this verdict?
It's a case where somebody died and where the defendant we know had a gun in his hand, and that gun caused a death. And I think people expect that that has to be some sort of crime and there has to be a conviction, but that's not necessarily true. There are a lot of ways that somebody can be holding a gun and not have any sort of mental state to commit a crime.
What happens next for Garcia Zarate?
Well the immigration authorities have what's called a detainer, which is effectively a warrant for Mr. Zarate's arrest. They have to execute that warrant. They have to go and arrest him, but where he's going to be and when is really a mystery to everyone including the immigration authorities. San Francisco is a sanctuary city. San Francisco employees, including the sheriff, are prohibited from assisting ICE in executing that warrant, so ICE is going to have to be on its toes and find Mr. Zarate, arrest him and then put him through the immigration process to have him deported.
Can San Francisco let Garcia Zarate go again?
Absolutely. In fact right now, technically, Mr. Zarate is being held in jail in violation of his own civil rights because he has now served more than his maximum sentence on the charge on which he stands convicted. He could technically, theoretically, walk out of the jail right now, but I have a feeling that Mr. Zarate probably doesn't want to walk out of the San Francisco jail onto the streets of San Francisco.
Do you think San Francisco officials will cooperate with immigration authorities?
No. San Francisco officials can't cooperate with immigration authorities because the due process for all ordinance, the sanctuary city law says that they cannot cooperate. To do so would be an improper use of San Francisco funds and a violation of the ordinance.
Can the Trump administration do anything legally here?
Yeah. Actually there is some recourse for the Steinle family and for people like the attorney general and the president who apparently think that this was an injustice, and that is a civil rights prosecution in federal court. If the Trump administration really thinks that an injustice was done here, it can simply put its money where its mouth is, call the US attorney for the northern district of California and say, 'We want you to look into to prosecuting Mr. Garcia Zarate.'
Has that happened before?
Absolutely. There is a long history in federal law of people who have committed heinous crimes and have been acquitted in the state courts being then been prosecuted successfully in the federal courts for violations of their victim's civil rights. That happened many, many times in the days of the civil rights movement when Klansmen would routinely be acquitted and then would be prosecuted successfully in federal court.
Do you think the politics of the case crept into the minds of the jurors?
One of the most important things to understand about this case is that it is not a referendum on immigrants, illegal immigration or immigration policy. These jurors were insulated from all of those political issues from the moment they walked into the courtroom. They were all vetted to swear under penalty of perjury that they would not be motivated by any sort of bias, prejudice, political position or anything else, and they were warned every time they broke from the court proceedings that they should not listen to any broadcast, they should not discuss the case. So they've been thoroughly insulated from all of those political issues. Obviously this case has huge political implications, but the jurors did not and could not take that into consideration in their deliberations.