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Reconstructing the Kate Steinle Case: How Accident Became Immigration Firestorm

Kathryn Steinle
A memorial for Kate Steinle in San Francisco

A verdict has been returned in the Kate Steinle case, and it’s causing no less furor than when the 32-year-old was shot in 2015 while walking along the San Francisco pier. Her accused killer, a repeatedly deported undocumented immigrant named Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, was acquitted of first- and second-degree murder, as well as manslaughter charges. He was convicted only of being a felon in possession of a weapon.

Trump lost no time in using the case to serve his anti-immigration agenda, as he has since the shooting occurred. “A disgraceful verdict in the Kate Steinle case! No wonder the people of our Country are so angry with Illegal Immigration,” he tweeted with characteristic improper grammar.

“From day one, this case was used as a means to foment hate, to foment division, to foment a program of mass deportation,” noted defense attorney Francisco Ugarte.

But here’s the crucial point: This case – as a murder or manslaughter case – actually has almost nothing to do with immigration. The “illegal immigration” and “sanctuary cities” angle is political spin. That becomes clear when you reconstruct the incident.

The Shooting

The surveillance video is shadowy and unclear, just like many aspects of this case. But we can see that six individuals gathered around a metal chair at the pier on the afternoon of July 1, 2015. They appear to be conferring about something and repeatedly putting down and picking up objects.

One of those objects may have been a .40-caliber SIG Sauer handgun stolen from a Bureau of Land Management ranger’s vehicle four days before. The SIG Sauer has a hair-trigger and is known for accidental discharges.

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Surveillance video of six individuals who may have deposited the gun at the pier.

The six individuals left the pier at 5:38 p.m. At 6:07 p.m., a man arrives and takes a seat at that chair. It is Garcia Zarate. He notices something wrapped in cloth or t-shirt on the ground. He unwraps it and sees it’s a gun. It fires.

We will never know for certain if he fired it accidentally or consciously, but he claims it was accidental. We do know that the bullet hit the pavement 12 feet from Garcia Zarate and ricocheted 78 feet, hitting Kate Steinle in the back and killing her. So it is clear he did not intentionally kill Steinle in particular. There is also no evidence to indicate he intentionally tried to kill anyone in the crowd by ricocheting a bullet off the ground. Based on this evidence, the jury deemed him not guilty.

But just hours after the incident, long before the evidence was in, Garcia Zarate was tried in the court of public opinion – because he fit the exact narrative politicians were looking for.

The Background

Garcia Zarate is in no way representative of immigrants – documented or undocumented. But he is characteristic of the “bad hombre” stereotype Trump and other Republican demagogues were (and are) perpetuating to gain the support of fearful and prejudiced voters.

There certainly is nothing to admire or respect about Garcia Zarate, though one might pity him. Reported to have no more than a second-grade education, he may be mentally ill or simply not very mentally capable. For example, in a police interview, he repeatedly said he was born in 1863.

For decades, Garcia Zarate illegally entered the U.S. from Mexico and was deported five times. He was convicted of multiple felonies, for drug possession and felony re-entry into the United States. He was not convicted of any violent crimes.

Prior to the Steinle incident, he had served 46 months in federal prison and was scheduled to be deported for the sixth time. Instead, federal authorities sent him to San Francisco on a warrant for marijuana possession that happened 20 years before. Prosecutors in San Francisco dropped the charges because the evidence had been destroyed. Because San Francisco has a “sanctuary city” policy that tells law enforcement to ignore federal detainer requests when there’s no evidence to hold someone, they released Garcia Zarate, and he became homeless.

Two months later, the shooting occurred, just in time to light a fire under Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

The Manipulated Story

“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,” Steinle’s mother, Liz Sullivan, told the San Francisco Chronicle. “We were the perfect storm for that man.”

Trump, who has a hair-trigger like a SIG Sauer, fired off a series of tweets and stump statements.

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She was not “viciously killed.” She was accidentally killed.

In an interview with CNN, Trump said, “This man, or this animal, that shot that wonderful, that beautiful woman in San Francisco, this guy was pushed back by Mexico.” 

Mexico didn’t push him back. He came of his own volition.

“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 days after Steinle died. “This is an absolutely disgraceful situation, and I am the only one that can fix it. Nobody else has the guts to even talk about it. That won’t happen if I become president.”

Again, it wasn’t an act of violence, it wasn’t committed by a violent man, and it had nothing to do with his immigration status. Furthermore, people all over the country had the guts to talk about it; they pounced on it like hungry wolves. And what precisely could Trump do to ensure no one ever gets accidentally shot?

This week, Trump continued the false story:

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Garcia Zarate was not convicted of violent crimes. And his illegal re-entry had nothing to do with whether or not he committed murder. You can’t be convicted of a crime you didn’t commit because you committed a different crime; that’s how justice works in this country.

Of course, it wasn’t just Trump manipulating public opinion. Professionally angry pundit Ann Coulter tweeted that Steinle “would still be alive if we had a wall.”

We do have a wall, and Garcia Zarate may well have climbed over it multiple times, because as all sensible people know, walls do not stop immigration.

In addition, shortly after the 2015 shooting, legislators introduced Kate’s Law, which would establish mandatory minimum sentencing for people who illegally re-enter the country. Of course, Garcia Zarate had just spent four years in jail, and mandatory minimums wouldn’t have done anything to prevent an accidental shooting.

Steinle’s parents – who have said they are not opposed to sanctuary policies – were not involved in the creation of Kate’s Law and reported that they did not know who named it after their daughter. This further indicates that politicians are using Kate Steinle as a pawn.

Politicians on all sides are spinning stories to serve their agenda, and there are so many spinnable stories these days we barely have time to think. That’s what politicians are banking on. The Kate Steinle case underscores how we must resist demagoguery and knee-jerk reactions and calmly, critically make decisions based on evidence.