The Kate Steinle verdict is more complicated than you think

Republican lawmakers have been using her death as a cause celebre against the undocumented population.

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, July 7, 2015. (CREDIT: Michael Macor/San Francisco Chronicle via AP, Pool, File)
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, July 7, 2015. (CREDIT: Michael Macor/San Francisco Chronicle via AP, Pool, File)

Two years ago, Kate Steinle, a then-32-year-old Californian, was fatally struck with a single bullet while taking a walk with her father on a crowded San Francisco pier. An undocumented immigrant, who had previously been deported five times, fired the gun that killed her. On Thursday, a jury reached a “not guilty” verdict for Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, who was acquitted of all murder and manslaughter charges. He received a conviction of being a felon in possession of a firearm.

“We’re just shocked — saddened and shocked … that’s about it,” Jim Steinle, Kate’s father said in a recent interview with the San Francisco Chronicle. “There’s no other way you can coin it. Justice was rendered, but it was not served.”

Some lawmakers have seized on Steinle’s death to advocate for tough immigration policies and to condemn so-called sanctuary cities, or localities where the law enforcement department can choose to decline turning over suspected undocumented immigrants to federal authorities for potential deportation proceedings. Fox News and Republican politicians regularly touted Kate’s Law, a bill that would impose a five-year mandatory prison sentence on people who try to reenter the country illegally. President Donald Trump has also cited her death several times to justify the need for a border wall along the southern U.S. border and to withhold federal funds from sanctuary cities.

The San Francisco Chronicle — which has followed the intricacies of the case more closely than lawmakers and other national critics — pointed out that the jury found credible the defense attorneys’ arguments that the shot ricocheted off the concrete ground before fatally striking Steinle, pointing to an unintentional killing. The defense attorneys also said it was possible that a group of people who had gathered nearby had disposed the gun — which was stolen from a Bureau of Land Management ranger’s car four days earlier — near their client, which is how he got the gun.


Garcia Zarate, who was released from County Jail before he killed Steinle despite a federal request to hold him for his sixth deportation, was convicted of a single lesser charge of being a felon in possession of a gun. He will now serve a prison sentence for the lesser conviction and will likely still be deported on account of a U.S. Marshall Services warrant, which the city of San Francisco will honor to turn him over for deportation proceedings.

The verdict has once again drawn knee-jerk reactions from politicians about sanctuary cities and immigration policies.

On Friday, White House senior advisor Kellyanne Conway spoke of the Steinle case by bringing up Trump’s meeting with other U.S. citizens killed by undocumented immigrants. “This is an outrageous verdict,” Conway said on Fox News. “We will not stop until justice is served and until there is legislation on the books, federally that, prevents this in the future. Also makes clear to these cities, you better stop putting criminal aliens before the safety and protection of our American citizens.”

In a series of three tweets on Thursday night and early Friday morning, Trump also condemned the jury’s decision.

Likewise, Rep. Steve King (R-IA) claimed Friday that the verdict was somehow a “joy of the Left.”

Within the national framework of the immigration debate, the verdict in San Francisco gives conservatives added kerosene to condemn sanctuary cities and to broadly scapegoat immigrant communities. But as the conservative website Red State observed, “there are many who seek to benefit from twisting, if not outright lying, about what really happened.”


In its exclusive interview with the Steinle family, the SF Chronicle pointed out that the family takes a nuanced approach to sanctuary cities. Jim Steinle said he understands the need for sanctuary cities to build trust between immigrant communities and local law enforcement authorities. But the family also couldn’t grapple with how Garcia Zarate was able to come back into the country and how a gun wound up in his hands.

Contrary to Rep. King’s claim, no one on the “left” and no immigrant advocate outside of the case derives “joy” from the verdict — a woman is still dead. Conflating Garcia Zarate’s actions with sanctuary cities obscures the reality that victims, regardless of immigration status, feel more empowered to report crimes when they aren’t afraid of being deported during encounters with law enforcement authorities. A 2015 National Latin@ Network for Healthy Families and Communities survey found that 41 percent of foreign-born Latinas interviewed reported that they were afraid to call the police or go to court because they feared they could be deported.

Earlier this year, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) signed The Trust Act to limit collaboration between local law enforcement agencies and the federal government, an act supported by several police departments in the state. And other law enforcement officials across the country also prefer to have good working relationships with the communities they serve.

“If you ask any police chief or sheriff what their mission is, they will tell you first and foremost that it’s the safety of their community,” Maryland’s Montgomery County Police Chief J. Thomas Manger, who is also president of the Major City Chiefs Association, said in May. “It’s a complex mission, with a lot of moving parts. Eighteen thousand police departments — one size does not fit all. Every community has different crime challenges and different safety issues that they have to deal with, but at the core of our ability to perform our mission effectively is earning and keeping the trust and confidence of those whom we serve.”