San Francisco

Kate Steinle Trial: Firearms Expert Testifies in Support of Accidental Shooting

A firearms expert Wednesday testified in support of defense arguments that Kate Steinle was killed on San Francisco's Pier 14 accidentally, describing unintentional firearms discharges as "all too common."

Alan Voth, a firearms forensic expert who spent 35 years with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, testified Wednesday in the trial of Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, who is charged with second-degree murder in Steinle's death.

Steinle, a 32-year-old Pleasanton native and San Francisco resident, was shot once in the back as she walked on the pier with family members on the evening of July 1, 2015.

Defense attorneys are not contesting that Garcia Zarate, 45, fired the shot that killed Steinle, but instead are arguing that the shooting was an accident that occurred after Garcia Zarate found and picked up a gun on the pier that had been stolen from a U.S. Bureau of Land Management ranger several days earlier.

Prosecutors are not required to prove Garcia Zarate intended to kill Steinle for a second-degree murder charge, but they still must prove he intended to fire the gun.

Voth, who has trained law enforcement on proper weapons handling, Wednesday testified that unintentional discharges can be caused by manufacturing defects, operator error, muscle spasms, loss of muscle control or a loss of tactile sensation, such as when the hands are cold or in gloves and are "all too common" among both law enforcement and civilians.

Signs that a shooting was an unintentional discharge would include if a single shot fired rather than multiple shots, if the operator was poorly trained and if the operator injured himself, Voth said.

Other signs would include a lack of deliberate aiming, evidence that the person was doing something other than aiming when the gun went off, bullet strikes in illogical locations, a lack of motive or evidence of planning in the shooting and the actions of the shooter after the gun fired.

No evidence has been presented to indicate any motive or planning on Garcia Zarate's part.

Evidence presented in the case indicates the single bullet that struck Steinle hit the ground on the pier around 12 feet away from where Garcia Zarate sat before it hit Steinle around 90 feet away from him.

Under questioning by Matt Gonzalez, chief attorney for the Public Defender's Office, Voth said it was obvious the bullet had ricocheted and that he would consider that as an "illogical bullet strike."

"There's no apparent reason to fire into a concrete pier," he said.

Voth said in a situation such as Garcia Zarate's, where a person who is seated fires a single bullet at the ground that ricochets and strikes someone 78 feet away from the ricochet, "I see the probability that this is an unintentional discharge."

Outside court, defense attorney Francisco Ugarte said Voth's testimony corroborated statements by Garcia Zarate and his defense team that the shooting was accidental.

"It has all the physical characteristics of an accident," Ugarte said.

Defense attorneys Wednesday also worked to undermine the credibility of a witness who testified in court that she had seen Garcia Zarate laughing and acting strangely shortly before the shooting.

Sgt. Conroy testified that the witness, Michelle Lo, did not mention the laughter when she was interviewed by police after the shooting. Michelle Lo's son, Danny Lo, testified that Garcia Zarate made him uncomfortable because he was homeless and said the defendant had looked nonchalant and bored when he saw him on the pier before the shooting.

Steinle's shooting triggered a national furor over San Francisco's Sanctuary City policies after it was learned that Garcia Zarate, an undocumented immigrant with a history of deportations and drug charges, had been released from San Francisco jail several months earlier without notice to federal immigration authorities.

However, Prosecutor Diana Garcia did not bring up Garcia Zarate's immigration status and criminal record during the presentation of her case, which concluded last week.

Defense attorneys are expected to finish presenting their case Thursday, with closing arguments expected to take place next week.

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