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Man Acquitted in Kate Steinle Case Seeks New Trial on Gun Charge

NBC Bay Area/AP

The Mexican man acquitted of murder in the shooting death of a San Francisco woman that sparked a national immigration debate on Thursday sought a new trial for his conviction on illegal gun possession.

Lawyers for Jose Ines Garcia Zarate filed court papers arguing that the judge failed to properly instruct jurors before they found him not guilty last month of killing Kate Steinle on a popular pier in 2015.

Jurors did convict him of being felon in possession of a firearm. Garcia Zarate has previously been convicted of illegal re-entry into the United States and had been deported five times before Steinle was fatally shot.

The San Francisco sheriff's department released him from jail several weeks before the shooting, ignoring a request from federal immigration officials to detain him for a sixth deportation.

San Francisco's sanctuary city policy bars local officials from helping federal immigration authorities in deportation matters unless they have a warrant. Donald Trump pointed to the shooting during his presidential campaign as another reason to build a wall along the Mexican border and tighten immigration policies.

Defense lawyers argued in court papers that the judge improperly barred the jury from considering Garcia Zarate's claim that he didn't know he was holding a gun when it fired. They also argue that Garcia Zarate didn't hold the gun long enough to warrant a firearm possession conviction.

Jurors had asked for clarification during deliberations on what "intent" they had to determine from Garcia Zarate to convict him of illegal possession.

Outside the courtroom, defense attorney Matt Gonzales explained why he believes a new trial is in order.

"Our whole defense is he picked up an object and didn’t know what it was," Gonzales said. "That goes right to this. I think a properly instructed jury, whether it's in state court or in federal court, is going to find Mr. Garcia Zarate not guilty of this offense."

Garcia Zarate said he was sitting on a city pier when he found and picked up a gun wrapped in rags. His lawyer said Garcia Zarate didn't know it was a weapon until it accidentally fired, the bullet ricocheting of the pier's concrete walkway and striking Steinle in the back.

Mark Yates, a professor at Golden Gate University Law School, notes while the defense procedure is routine, there could be more at stake.

"If the defense can get rid of that conviction, that helps him very much in the federal case," Yates said. "I think it has some symbolic value. If the outcome of the case is no conviction on any crime whatsoever, that’s hard for the public to take."

The motion for a new trial will be considered Jan. 5. If it's denied, Garcia Zarate is scheduled to be sentenced that day. The San Francisco District Attorney's Office declined to comment Thursday.

Garcia Zarate faces a maximum sentence of three years in jail. He has been in the San Francisco jail since his July 1, 2015, arrest.

A federal grand jury recently indicted Garcia Zarate on two felony charges of illegal gun possession. The San Francisco sheriff's department said it will turn him over to federal authorities after he has finished his state sentence.

NBC Bay Area's Christie Smith contributed to this report.

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