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In Steinle Trial, Facts Confound Easy Answers

The Kate Steinle trial has become a showdown over immigration policies. But the facts of the case won’t conform to anyone’s simple narrative.

A homemade memorial to Kate Steinle, who was shot and killed under disputed circumstances on San Francisco's Embarcadero.


When an undocumented 21-year-old gang member named Edwin Ramos gunned down an innocent father and his two sons in the Excelsior back in 2008, immigration hawks blamed San Francisco’s sanctuary city policies. They latched on to the fact that, before the triple murder, the city’s juvenile hall had twice released Ramos without reporting him to the feds. (They glossed over the later revelation that the feds had actually known about Ramos’s criminality for years as they went about building a megacase against his gang, the MS-13.) City leaders tweaked some details of the sanctuary city policy but decided they wouldn’t let one evil act change its spirit.

So when it turned out that the suspect arrested for the killing of Kate Steinle in 2015 not only was undocumented but also had been released from county jail a few months earlier, the city prepared for another backlash.

This time, however, it went international, after a reality TV star name-dropped “Beautiful Kate” in a campaign stump speech while calling for a border wall and blasting sanctuary policies. Again San Francisco stood by its policy, and in October, California, in full resistance mode against the reality TV star who had since become president, voted to become a sanctuary state.

This high-stakes political storm has been invisible inside the trial of Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, which is expected to finish sometime in December. But the facts that have emerged won’t leave anyone happy. The district attorney has charged Zarate with second-degree murder, meaning that he intended to pull the trigger. But no one saw Zarate at the moment the gun went off.

The defense argues it was an accidental discharge, further citing the uncontested fact that the bullet ricocheted off the concrete,then traveled 90 feet down the pier, where it struck Steinle. Zarate, meanwhile, offered a mishmash of stories to the interrogating cops—he was aiming at seals, the gun fired after he stepped on it, it went off after he picked up the bundle of cloth it was wrapped in. While the district attorney has painted him as a cunning liar, the defense says he’s a befuddled, even mentally ill, simpleton whose long record of drug-related arrests includes being busted for huffing “toxic vapors.” As to Zarate’s motive, the prosecutor conceded in opening statements, “We’ll probably never know.”

If Zarate walks, the conservative machine will ignore those details and blast the city by the bay again. A conviction wouldn’t solve much, either. Considering the murky evidence, many would see it as a political verdict. Nor would it end the sanctuary standoff between California and the Trump administration.

As for Kate’s father, Jim, who testified with a quivering voice about her dying in his arms, no verdict will give him what he really wants: his daughter back.


Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco

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