Trial focused on shooting despite spotlight on immigration

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Though the 2015 shooting death of Kate Steinle became a flashpoint in an intense national debate over immigration, the issue was never addressed inside the courtroom where a jury acquitted a Mexican national of murder and manslaughter — a verdict President Donald Trump called a “complete travesty of justice.” From the outset, the judge barred any mention of Jose Ines Garcia Zarate’s immigration status or the five times he was arrested and deported to Mexico before he came back across the border. The judge said the jury should consider only Garcia Zarate’s intentions on the July evening when Steinle was shot.

FILE – In this July 7, 2015 file photo, Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, right, is led into the courtroom by San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi, left, and Assistant District Attorney Diana Garciaor, center, for his arraignment at the Hall of Justice in San Francisco. A jury has reached a verdict Thursday, Nov. 30, 2017, in the trial of Mexican man at center of immigration debate in the San Francisco pier shooting. (Michael Macor/San Francisco Chronicle via AP, Pool, File)

FILE – In this July 17, 2015 file photo, flowers and a portrait of Kate Steinle remain at a memorial site on Pier 14 in San Francisco. A jury has reached a verdict Thursday, Nov. 30, 2017, in the trial of Mexican man at center of immigration debate in the San Francisco pier shooting. (Paul Chinn/San Francisco Chronicle via AP, File)

FILE – In this July 6, 2015 file photo, Father Cameron Faller, right, and Julio Escobar, of Restorative Justice Ministry, conduct a vigil for Kathryn Steinle on Pier 14 in San Francisco. A jury has reached a verdict Thursday, Nov. 30, 2017, in the trial of Mexican man at center of immigration debate in the San Francisco pier shooting. (AP Photo/Beck Diefenbach, File)

FILE – This undated file booking photo provided by the San Francisco Police Department shows Jose Ines Garcia Zarate. A jury has reached a verdict Thursday, Nov. 30, 2017, in the trial of Mexican man at center of immigration debate in the San Francisco pier shooting. (San Francisco Police Department via AP, File)

File – In this Nov. 30, 2017 file photo, Jim Steinle, center, and Liz Sullivan, right, the parents of Kate Steinle, walk to a court room for closing arguments in the trial of Jose Ines Garcia Zarate accused of killing their daughter, in San Francisco. A jury has reached a verdict Thursday, Nov. 30, 2017, in the trial of Mexican man at center of immigration debate in the San Francisco pier shooting. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)

San Francisco Deputy District Attorney Diana Garcia walks to the courtroom after a verdict was reached in the trial of Jose Ines Garcia Zarate Thursday, Nov. 30, 2017, in San Francisco. Garcia Zarate was found not guilty in the killing of Kate Steinle on a San Francisco pier that touched off a national immigration debate two years ago, rejecting possible charges ranging from involuntary manslaughter to first-degree murder. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Matt Gonzalez, chief attorney of the San Francisco Public Defenders Office, fields questions after a verdict was reached in the trial of Jose Ines Garcia Zarate Thursday, Nov. 30, 2017, in San Francisco. Garcia Zarate was found not guilty in the killing of Kate Steinle on a San Francisco pier that touched off a national immigration debate two years ago, rejecting possible charges ranging from involuntary manslaughter to first-degree murder. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Matt Gonzalez, chief attorney of the San Francisco Public Defenders Office, center, fields questions after a verdict was reached in the trial of Jose Ines Garcia Zarate Thursday, Nov. 30, 2017, in San Francisco. Garcia Zarate was found not guilty in the killing of Kate Steinle on a San Francisco pier that touched off a national immigration debate two years ago, rejecting possible charges ranging from involuntary manslaughter to first-degree murder. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi, left, answers questions after a verdict was reached in the trial of Jose Ines Garcia Zarate Thursday, Nov. 30, 2017, in San Francisco. A jury on Thursday found Garcia Zarate not guilty on possible charges of first-degree murder, second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter in the 2015 death of Kate Steinle on a popular pier. Jurors did find Garcia Zarate guilty of being a felon in possession of a firearm. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Alex Bastian, Deputy Chief of Staff with the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office answers questions after a verdict was reached in the trial of Jose Ines Garcia Zarate Thursday, Nov. 30, 2017, in San Francisco. Garcia Zarate was found not guilty in the killing of Kate Steinle on a San Francisco pier that touched off a national immigration debate two years ago, rejecting possible charges ranging from involuntary manslaughter to first-degree murder. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

San Francisco public defender attorney, Francisco Ugarte, second from left, answers questions after a verdict was reached in the trial of Jose Ines Garcia Zarate Thursday, Nov. 30, 2017, in San Francisco. Garcia Zarate was found not guilty in the killing of Kate Steinle on a San Francisco pier that touched off a national immigration debate two years ago, rejecting possible charges ranging from involuntary manslaughter to first-degree murder. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

FILE – In this July 7, 2015 file photo, Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, right, is led into the courtroom by San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi, left, and Assistant District Attorney Diana Garciaor, center, for his arraignment at the Hall of Justice in San Francisco. Jurors ended their fifth day of deliberations Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017, without reaching a verdict in the murder trial that sparked a national debate over immigration policy. Jurors are deciding whether Garcia Zarate meant to shoot Steinle in 2015 or if they believe his claim that the the shooting was accidental. (Michael Macor/San Francisco Chronicle via AP, Pool, File)

FILE – In this July 17, 2015 file photo, flowers and a portrait of Kate Steinle remain at a memorial site on Pier 14 in San Francisco. Jurors ended their fifth day of deliberations Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017, without reaching a verdict in the murder trial that sparked a national debate over immigration policy. The six men and six women are deciding whether Jose Ines Garcia Zarate meant to shoot Steinle as charged or whether they believe his claim that the the shooting was accidental. (Paul Chinn/San Francisco Chronicle via AP, File)

A jury on Thursday found a Mexican man not guilty of murder in the killing of a woman on a San Francisco pier that touched off a national immigration debate two years ago. U.S. immigration officials say Jose Ines Garcia Zarate will be deported. (Nov 30)

A jury on Thursday found a Mexican man not guilty of murder in the killing of a woman on a San Francisco pier that touched off a national immigration debate two years ago. U.S. immigration officials say Jose Ines Garcia Zarate will be deported. (Nov 30)

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Though the 2015 shooting death of Kate Steinle became a flashpoint in an intense national debate over immigration, the issue was never addressed inside the courtroom where a jury acquitted a Mexican national of murder and manslaughter — a verdict President Donald Trump called a “complete travesty of justice.”

From the outset, the judge barred any mention of Jose Ines Garcia Zarate’s immigration status or the five times he was arrested and deported to Mexico before he came back across the border. The judge said the jury should consider only Garcia Zarate’s intentions on the July evening when Steinle was shot.

“His immigration status had no bearing on whether he purposely pulled the trigger or not,” legal analyst and defense attorney Dan Horowitz said of the immigration issue.

San Francisco Deputy District Attorney Diana Garcia argued the shooting was murder. The jury sided with the defense, which argued that the shooting was an accident, and found him guilty only of being a felon in possession of a firearm. That charge carries a maximum of three years in jail.

Steinle was shot while walking with her father and a family friend on a San Francisco pier popular with tourists. Garcia Zarate said he was sitting on the pier when he found a gun under a chair. He said the gun was wrapped in a T-shirt and accidentally fired when he picked it up.

A jury on Thursday found a Mexican man not guilty of murder in the killing of a woman on a San Francisco pier that touched off a national immigration debate two years ago. U.S. immigration officials say Jose Ines Garcia Zarate will be deported. (Nov 30)

Before the shooting, Garcia Zarate had finished a federal prison sentence for illegal re-entry into the United States and had been transferred to San Francisco’s jail in March 2015 to face a 20-year-old charge for selling marijuana.

The sheriff’s department released him a few days after prosecutors dropped the marijuana charge, despite a request from federal immigration officials to detain him for deportation.

“San Francisco’s decision to protect criminal aliens led to the preventable and heartbreaking death of Kate Steinle,” U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement Thursday night. “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.”

San Francisco is known as a “sanctuary city” because its policies bar local police from helping federal authorities identify and deport immigrants that came to the U.S. illegally.

President Barack Obama continued his Republican predecessor’s policy which allowed federal immigration officials to request local law enforcement detain for up to 48 hours people suspected of living in the country illegally. But, in 2014, a federal judge ruled the practice of holding them without a warrant was likely unconstitutional.

At the time of the shooting, then-candidate Trump and others pointed to Steinle’s death as reasons why the country’s immigration laws should be tightened.

In a pre-dawn tweet Friday, the president blamed Democrats, saying: “The Schumer/Pelosi Democrats are so weak on Crime that they will pay a price in the 2018 and 2020 Elections.” He was referring to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

He had called the verdict “disgraceful” on Thursday. And in Friday’s social media messaging, Trump said that “the Kate Steinle killer came back and back over the weakly protected Obama border, always committing crimes and being violent, and yet this info was not used in court.”

“His exoneration is a complete travesty of justice. BUILD THE WALL,” Trump tweeted.

Defense attorney Francisco Ugarte said: “From Day 1 this case was used as a means to foment hate, to foment division and to foment a program of mass deportation. It was used to catapult a presidency along that philosophy of hate of others.” He called the verdict a “vindication for the rest of immigrants.”

ICE also blamed San Francisco’s policy for Steinle’s death and said Thursday night it would “ultimately remove” Garcia Zarate from the country.

Jurors left the courtroom Thursday without comment and the judge sealed their identities.

Steinle’s father, Jim, who was walking with her on the pier when she was killed, told the San Francisco Chronicle that “justice was rendered, but it was not served.”

“We’re just shocked — saddened and shocked … that’s about it,” he said in an interview the family said would be its last.

Michael Cardoza, a longtime San Francisco Bay Area lawyer said the prosecutor made a mistake by asking the jury to convict Garcia Zarate of first-degree murder despite strong evidence that the bullet ricocheted around 90 feet (27 meters) before fatally striking Steinle on July 1, 2015. Cardoza said a better case could have been made to convince jurors Garcia Zarate had a “reckless disregard for human life” and convicted him of second-degree murder.

“The prosecutor got greedy,” Cardoza said. “She lost credibility when she told jurors he pointed the gun at Kate Steinle.”

Garcia declined comment afterward. Alex Bastian, a spokesman for the San Francisco district attorney’s office, said the verdict “was not the one we were hoping for” but said prosecutors respect the jury’s decision.

Prosecutors initially charged Garcia Zarate with second-degree murder, which meant they had to show jurors he had a “willful disregard for human life” when he picked up the gun. But at the end of the trial, the judge agreed to the prosecutor’s request that jurors could also consider convicting him of first-degree murder if they believed Garcia Zarate meant to kill Steinle.

Garcia Zarate’s attorneys argued that the ricochet of the fatal bullet supported an accidental shooting theory. Defense attorney Matt Gonzalez said told jurors he knows it’s difficult to believe Garcia Zarate found an object that turned out to be a weapon, which fired when he picked it up.

But he said Garcia Zarate had no motivation to kill Steinle and that as awful as her death was, “nothing you do is going to fix that.”

A U.S. Bureau of Land Management ranger reported the gun stolen from his SUV parked in San Francisco a few days before the shooting.