Why Kate Steinle trial jurors found suspect not guilty of murder
An alternate juror in the Kate Steinle murder trial surprised by public backlash at its conclusion is attempting to explain “why the jury was right to make the decision that it did.”
Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, a Mexican immigrant who had been deported five times from the United States, earlier this month was cleared on first and second-degree murder charges as well as a count of manslaughter in the death of 32-year-old Steinle, who was fatally shot while walking with her father on a pier July 1, 2015.
Kate Steinle was shot to death on July 1, 2015.
The fatal incident sparked an intense debate on national immigration at the time, with President Trump citing the shooting for stricter policy during his campaign for the White House.
Trump later called the verdict in the case “disgraceful,” while scores of others — including Donald Trump Jr. and Attorney General Jeff Sessions — offered criticisms of their own.
In an essay for Politico, alternate juror Phil Van Stockum — who did not get a vote and is not a lawyer — strived to explain the case’s outcome to those who reacted with “surprise, confusion and derision.”
Garcia Zarate’s defense team repeatedly pushed back against the murder charges leveled against him. Van Stockum wrote by the end of the trial, “it seemed clear to me that the evidence didn’t support the requirements of premeditation or malice aforethought (intentional recklessness or killing) for murder charges.”
He also noted that jurors were informed Garcia Zarate had no record nor apparent motive in the shooting.
“After having heard the evidence, I agreed with the defense’s opinion that murder charges shouldn’t have been brought,” Van Stockum wrote in the Politico piece. “The evidence didn’t show that Garcia Zarate intended to kill anyone.”
San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon has since defended his office’s handling of the case, saying “we felt, and we still do, that we had evidence of a murder case.”
Jose Ines Garcia Zarate (r.) is led into the courtroom by San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi (l.) and Assistant DA Diana Garciaor (c.) for his arraignment.
The alternate juror from San Francisco also emphasized evidence in the case indicated Steinle was shot by mistake.
Van Stockum noted the weapon used was a Sauer P239 pistol, a backup emergency weapon used by law enforcement, which has “a light trigger mode and no safety.” He added jurors requested to handle the weapon during deliberations, but the judge turned them down.
He also pointed out the shot fired while Garcia Zarate was seated in a chair “hit the ground 12 feet in front of him before ricocheting a further 78 feet to hit Steinle.”
The facts, he said, provide for a “reasonable interpretation” which “favors the defendant: He found the gun at the seat, picked it up out of curiosity and accidentally caused it to fire” before dumping it in the water out of fear. He said jurors were forced to favor this interpretation due to “the presumption of innocence, as stated in the jury instructions.”
Van Stockum also acknowledged much of the public’s confusion however, stemmed from Garcia Zarate’s acquittal on the manslaughter charge.
“It does seem to me personally that manslaughter is the appropriate charge for Steinle’s killing,” he wrote. “However given the evidence and the law presented in this trial, it is clear to me that the jury made the right decision.”
He said manslaughter was defined for the jury as having two key elements: “1) A crime was committed in the act that caused the death; (2) The defendant acted with ‘criminal negligence.’”
The jurors were unable to select the crime referenced in the first key point. Rather than consider his illegally possessing a firearm — which they later found him guilty — as the crime, prosecutors instead designated it to be “brandishing” a firearm.
“No witnesses ever saw the defendant holding a gun, much less brandishing it,” Van Stockum wrote. “Given that baffling choice by the prosecution, the manslaughter charge was a nonstarter for the jury.”