By MATT STEVENS, THOMAS FULLER and CAITLIN DICKERSON
An unauthorized Mexican immigrant was acquitted of murder and manslaughter charges Thursday in the killing of Kathryn Steinle, whose death while out walking on a San Francisco pier became a touchstone in the national debate over immigration fueled by Donald Trump.
The man, Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, 45, who was also found not guilty of assault with a firearm, was convicted only of being a felon in possession of a firearm after a trial that lasted more than five weeks. His sentence could range from 16 months to three years. Garcia Zarate has already spent more than two years in county jail awaiting trial. A sentencing date had not yet been set.
Steinle’s death in July 2015 fed into a fierce debate over whether immigrants without legal status – Garcia Zarate had been deported five times – should be dealt with more aggressively, and over the role local law enforcement should play.
“For anyone that would question the outcome in this case, this jury was deliberating for six days,” Jeff Adachi, the San Francisco public defender, said after the verdict. “There was a tremendous amount of misinformation that was spread about this case from Day One. You had then-candidate Trump espousing that this was an intentional shooting.”
In a telephone interview, Alex Bastian, an assistant district attorney in the office of the San Francisco district attorney, George Gascon, said the verdict “was not the one we had hoped for.”
“Both the prosecution and defense worked very hard in litigating this case,” he said. “At the end of the day, however, it is up to the jury to determine what they believe is an appropriate verdict. They came back the way they did and we will respect the jury’s decision.”
After the verdict was read, the victim’s father, Jim Steinle, told The San Francisco Chronicle, “We’re just shocked – saddened and shocked.”
“There’s no other way you can coin it,” he said. “Justice was rendered, but it was not served.”
Trump invoked Kathryn Steinle’s killing as he campaigned for president and tried to rally national support for his hard-line immigration agenda, which ultimately helped to catapult him into office.
On Thursday night, Trump wrote on Twitter: “A disgraceful verdict in the Kate Steinle case! No wonder the people of our Country are so angry with Illegal Immigration.”
In a statement, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement official said that after the conclusion of the case, the agency would “work to take custody of Mr. Garcia Zarate and ultimately remove him from the country.”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a longtime hard-liner on immigration enforcement who has threatened to strip federal funds from cities like San Francisco because of sanctuary policies, responded to the verdict in a statement.
“San Francisco’s decision to protect criminal aliens led to the preventable and heartbreaking death of Kate Steinle,” he said. “The Department of Justice will continue to ensure that all jurisdictions place the safety and security of their communities above the convenience of criminal aliens. I urge the leaders of the nation’s communities to reflect on the outcome of this case and consider carefully the harm they are doing to their citizens by refusing to cooperate with federal law enforcement officers.”
Jurors declined to speak to the media, a court spokeswoman told The Chronicle.
Steinle, known as Kate, a 32-year-old medical equipment saleswoman, was walking along Pier 14 in San Francisco when she was struck by a bullet and collapsed into her father’s arms. Garcia Zarate acknowledged firing the weapon, but said it was an accident.
Evidence was presented in court that the bullet had ricocheted before striking Steinle.
Garcia Zarate had been homeless at the time of the shooting and had multiple felony convictions. He had been set free from jail only months before the shooting, in defiance of requests by federal immigration authorities, who had asked that he be held longer so he could be deported again.
The backlash to his release crescendoed when Trump cited the case during the campaign.
In a major speech on immigration in August 2016, Trump argued that “countless innocent American lives have been stolen because our politicians have failed in their duty to secure our borders and enforce our laws.”
Trump then named several young people who he said had become victims of policies he considered failures. Among those he named was Steinle, who Trump said had been “gunned down in the sanctuary city of San Francisco, by an illegal immigrant, deported five previous times.”
“And they knew he was no good,” Trump said of the man who had shot her.
Unlike some other families whose personal tragedies have become political talking points, Steinle’s parents have largely avoided the news media. But, at times, they have acknowledged the utility to politicians of their experience.
“For Donald Trump, we were just what he needed – beautiful girl, San Francisco, illegal immigrant, arrested a million times, a violent crime and yadda, yadda, yadda,” her mother, Liz Sullivan, told The Chronicle. “We were the perfect storm for that man.”
In June, the House approved a bill known as Kate’s Law that would stiffen penalties for immigrants caught illegally re-entering the country after being deported. It was received in the Senate about two weeks later, where it has apparently stalled.
After the verdict, the lead defense lawyer in the case said Garcia Zarate’s immigration status was not relevant to the crime, an argument he said he had posed during jury selection.
“I think it brought home the idea that, ‘Hey, you know what, if he committed murder, prove it,’” the lawyer, Matt Gonzalez, said in an interview. “But you can’t just convict him because he’s not from the United States.”
Still, conservative commentators, including Bill O’Reilly and Ann Coulter, quickly condemned the verdict.
“Jury convinced that illegal alien killed Kate Steinle accidentally,” Coulter wrote on Twitter. “She would still be alive if we had a wall.”