How Trump’s Justice Department Might Take The Kate Steinle Case Into Its Own Hands

by Lani Seelinger
Alex Wong/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The executive branch of government hasn't reacted well to the not guilty verdict in the murder trial involving an undocumented immigrant accused of killing an American woman in San Francisco. Both President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have unleashed their condemnations — and now, a law enforcement official has claimed that the Justice Department might involve itself in the Kate Steinle case by pressing charges against the defendant, Jose Ines Garcia Zarate.

Trump's reaction to the not guilty verdict came quickly via his favorite medium, Twitter, as to be expected. "A disgraceful verdict in the Kate Steinle case! No wonder the people of our Country are so angry with Illegal Immigration," he tweeted out on Thursday evening. Attorney General Jeff Sessions' response expressed his disappointment with the way that the case turned out, focusing on the theme that stopping illegal immigration would have prevented Kathryn Steinle's death. He went on to repeat the call for all cities to comply with ICE. And seeing as Sessions has attacked sanctuary cities in the past, his response wasn't all that surprising.

“San Francisco’s decision to protect criminal aliens led to the preventable and heartbreaking death of Kate Steinle," Sessions wrote, going on to say:

The Department of Justice will continue to ensure that all jurisdictions place the safety and security of their communities above the convenience of criminal aliens. 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.

These reactions from both Sessions and Trump were somewhat expected, given the circumstances surrounding the case. In 2015, a bullet fired by a gun in possession of Garcia Zarate hit and killed Steinle, a San Francisco woman who was walking on a pier with her father and a friend. Prosecutors claimed that he had fired it on purpose, so Garcia Zarate faced charges of second-degree murder. With the right evidence, though, the jury also could have convicted him of first-degree murder or involuntary manslaughter. The defense, however, claimed that the gun had gone off accidentally in Garcia Zarate's hands.

In 2016, then, Steinle's family filed a lawsuit against the city of San Francisco for its failure to notify ICE officials when Garcia Zarate had been released from jail. "Kate's death was both foreseeable and preventable had the law enforcement agencies, officials and/or officers involved simply followed the laws, regulations and/or procedures which they swore to uphold," they wrote in the lawsuit. Trump had already picked up on the case when the lawsuit was filed. In fact, he even inserted it into his RNC acceptance speech.

And although a verdict was reached on Thursday, Trump still hasn't dropped it. However, Garcia Zarate, no matter Trump's claims, and no matter his immigration status, was found not guilty of Steinle's murder. He cannot be tried for that again. If the law enforcement official who claimed that the department would press charges against Garcia Zarate is indeed correct, then that poses an alarming scenario.

The courts are supposed to be independent of the executive branch, of which the Department of Justice is a part. Trump has already demonstrated that he doesn't value an independent judiciary — or, indeed, an independent Department of Justice — even though this particular divide between the various halls of government is one of the very backbones of a democratic system. The verdict, of course, wasn't the result that the Trump administration was hoping for, but expressing disappointment is where their actions should stop in this case.