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Immigrant deported multiple times found not guilty in fatal shooting of Kathryn Steinle

A man accused of fatally shooting Kathryn Steinle in a case that President Trump frequently cited in the national debate over illegal immigration was found not guilty on all counts except felony possession of a weapon.

Jurors deliberated for several days before returning the surprise verdict involving Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, a Mexican immigrant in the the country illegally who had been deported five times before the fatal shooting.

Prosecutors had given the jury the option to convict Garcia Zarate of first- or second-degree murder or involuntary manslaughter.

His defense argued that the weapon — stolen a few days earlier from a federal ranger’s nearby parked car — went off in the defendant’s hands.

During the trial, Garcia Zarate’s attorneys called an expert who testified that it was an unintentional ricochet shot that killed Steinle. The defense also said that Garcia Zarate had found the gun.

“Let me start out by … expressing my sincere condolences to the Steinle family,” defense attorney Matt Gonzalez told news outlets after the verdict. “I hope that they do not interpret this verdict as diminishing in any way the awful tragedy that occurred that their family has suffered.”

He later invoked members of the Trump administration, including the president, vice president and U.S. attorney general.

“Let me just remind them that they are themselves under investigation by a special prosecutor in Washington D.C., and they may themselves soon avail themselves of the presumption of innocence beyond a reasonable doubt…. I would ask them to reflect on that before they comment or disparage the result in this case,” Gonzalez said.

Steinle was shot in the back in July 2015 as she walked with her father on San Francisco’s Pier 14, near Embarcadero and Mission streets. Less than an hour later, Garcia Zarate, a seven-time felon, was arrested about a mile away from the shooting scene.

His previous brushes with the law and release by law enforcement stoked angry arguments over so-called sanctuary cities.

Then-presidential candidate Donald Trump repeatedly returned to Steinle’s killing to make his case for building a wall across the U.S.-Mexico border and to punish cities he accused of not cooperating with immigration enforcement.

“This senseless and totally preventable act of violence committed by an illegal immigrant is yet another example of why we must secure our border immediately,” Trump said in a statement two days after Steinle died. “This is an absolutely disgraceful situation, and I am the only one that can fix it.”

The president told CNN that year: “This man, or this animal, that shot that wonderful, that beautiful woman in San Francisco, this guy was pushed back by Mexico. Mexico pushes back people across the border that are criminals, that are drug dealers.”

After the reading of the verdict, one of Garcia Zarate’s attorneys, Francisco Ugarte, said the case had become terribly politicized.

“From Day One, this case was used as a means to foment hate, to foment division and to foment a program of mass deportation,” he said. “It was used to catapult a presidency along that philosophy of hate of others. And I believe today is a vindication for the rights of immigrants.”

In March 2015, when Garcia Zarate finished his third federal prison term for felony reentry into the United States from Mexico, he was turned over to San Francisco on a decades-old bench warrant for alleged marijuana possession. Prosecutors declined to file charges.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement asked to be notified prior to his release, but city officials did not comply because Garcia Zarate did not meet their criteria, set in 2013, for turning over people to immigration officials. He was freed.

A harsh light fell on what role San Francisco’s status as a sanctuary city had in the tragedy, with several Republican presidential candidates at the time calling for the federal government to punish sanctuary cities.

News outlets reported that politics and the immigration debate were kept out of the courtroom during the trial. The trial hinged on whether jurors believed the killing was intentional as opposed to accidental, as the defense asserted.

The prosecutor presented evidence that the pistol that killed Steinle required a firm pull of the trigger to fire and that Garcia Zarate threw the firearm into San Francisco Bay after Steinle fell, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. A crime-scene inspector also testified that the defendant had to have aimed the gun at Steinle for the bullet to follow the path it did.

“It was a verdict we were not hoping for,” San Francisco district attorney’s spokesman Alex Bastian said. “I know that both sides fought very hard, but again, the jurors are the ones who make a determination on a case and we will respect that decision.”

Times staff writer Seema Mehta contributed to this report.

brittny.mejia@latimes.com

For more California news, follow @brittny_mejia


UPDATES:

5:45 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from the defense and prosecutors.

This article was originally published at 4:45 p.m.

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