On July 1, 2015, Kathryn Steinle was shot and killed on a pier in San Francisco as she walked with her father. The shot was fired by Garcia Zarate, an illegal immigrant. Initial reports suggested that Zarate had been behind the couple and fired into her back. Two weeks ago when the jury hearing the case returned a not guilty verdict, outage was expressed by many, including the President. But the facts of the case really explain the verdict.
The weapon in question was stolen from the unmarked car of a Bureau of Land Management ranger who had parked to have dinner with his family. The weapon was a .40 caliber Sig Sauer automatic. It is a bit unusual in that it has no safety mechanism. It has a de-cocking system which, in simple terms, consists of two positions, one being single action and the other being double action. When placed in the single action position, the pressure on the trigger required to discharge the weapon is significantly less than when it is in the double action position. The Ranger could not remember for certain in which position he left the weapon.
Zarate claimed to have found the weapon under the bench upon which he was sitting on the same dock. He told two versions of what occurred, one that he was shooting at sea lions and struck the victim by mistake and the other that it had discharged accidentally as he was unwrapping it from the cloth that surrounded it.
What is undisputed is that the police investigators found a mark on the concrete of the dock that indicated a bullet had struck there. It then ricocheted some 78 feet before striking Ms. Steinle. The case went to the jury on the theories of first and second degree murder, and involuntary manslaughter and being a felon in possession of a firearm. After 12 days of testimony and two days of closing arguments, the jurors began their deliberations. Deliberating for five days, they found Zarate not guilty of all of the charges except being a felon in possession.
A fact that made the case notorious was that Zarate was not merely an illegal alien but he had entered the United States illegally on five different occasions and had served significant prison sentences for his illegal entries before being deported each time.
It is certainly correct that had Zarate not been able to sneak into the United States he would not have been in position to cause the harm he did, be it intentional or accidental. But it certainly is hardly irrational for a jury to conclude that it was unlikely he intentionally bounced a shot off the concrete of the pier before it hitting the victim. That would explain the not guilty verdict on the murder counts but I am not familiar with the elements of involuntary manslaughter under California law so I cannot comment on whether the jury should have found him guilty on that count.
But before we criticize the 12 people who worked hard to reach their decision, fully aware that an innocent young woman’s life had been cut tragically short, it is helpful to know what the facts were. Facts make a difference.
December 5, 2017