The Kate Steinle Trial That Trump Used To Push His Border Wall Has Been Decided

by Seth Millstein
Mark Wilson/Getty Images News/Getty Images

On Thursday, a San Francisco jury found Jose Garcia Zarate not guilty of murdering Kate Steinle. Garcia Zarate was accused of shooting and killing Steinle on a San Francisco pier in 2015. Because he was an undocumented immigrant who'd been deported from the United States in the past, the case quickly became a cause célèbre for opponents of permissive immigration law, and House Republicans eventually passed a law in Steinle's name. Garcia Zarate had already spent over two years in jail when the verdict was announced Thursday.

A bullet struck and killed Steinle in July 2015 when she was walking along Pier 14. Police arrested Garcia Zarate (who was then going by the alias Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez) later in the day on suspicion of killing Steinle. He was subsequently charged with second-degree murder in the case.

Garcia Zarate claims that he found the gun on the pier, but has otherwise given several conflicting accounts of what happened that night. At various times, he said that he wasn't on the pier at the time of the shooting, a claim later refuted by video evidence; that he was on the pier but had merely stepped on a gun by accident, thus causing it to accidentally fire; and that he did fire a gun but was attempting to shoot a "sea lion" or some other kind of aquatic animal, not Steinle.

The case received nationwide attention due to Garcia Zarate's immigration status. A Mexican citizen, he'd been deported from the United States at least five times for illegally crossing the border, and spent over a decade of his life in federal prison for those violations. Garcia Zarate had not, however, been convicted of any violent crimes prior to being charged in Steinle's death.

It was later reported that four months before Steinle was killed, Garcia Zarate had been held by San Francisco police on a 20-year-old marijuana charge. Federal authorities had asked the SFPD to continue detaining Garcia Zarate so that he could be deported, but because San Francisco is a sanctuary city, police released him, as he wasn't in violation of any state or local laws.

Immigration hawks, including then-candidate Donald Trump, seized on the case after it went public, arguing that it proves how sanctuary city policies can go awry. Referring to Garcia Zarate as an "animal," Trump called the case "an absolutely disgraceful situation" and "yet another example of why we must secure our border immediately."

"I am the only one that can fix it," Trump said at the time. Steinle's brother criticized Trump for using his sister's death to make a political argument, calling it "disconcerting" and telling CNN that he doesn't "want to be affiliated with someone who doesn't have the common courtesy to reach out and ask about Kate" before using her name in a stump speech.

Steinle's death eventually led House Republicans to pass "Kate's Law," a bill that would impose harsher sentences on immigrants who illegally cross the border multiple times, as well as a bill intended to penalize sanctuary cities. The Senate never acted on either piece of legislation.

In order for Garcia Zarate to have been found guilty of first- or second-degree murder, jurors would have needed to conclude that he acted with malicious intent. He and his defense, however, argued that the gun went off accidentally, pointing to the fact that the bullet in question ricocheted off the concrete before traveling an additional 78 feet and striking Steinle. As Popular Mechanics reported in August, the model of gun at the center of the case — the Sig 320 — was known to fire accidentally if dropped, a point the defense brought up during the trial.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions weighed in on the verdict after it was announced, arguing that "San Francisco’s decision to protect criminal aliens led to the preventable and heartbreaking death of Kate Steinle."

“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,” Sessions said.