The illegal immigrant who killed Kate Steinle in 2015 was found not guilty of her murder by a San Francisco jury today. Outrageous, right?

Before the killing, Garcia Zarate had been released from a San Francisco jail despite a standing federal deportation order. He had been deported five times before. This made him a very effective villain for Trump’s border security campaign messages — proof that sanctuary city policies kill! — and it’s natural to be sympathetic about Steinle, who died in her father’s arms at the far too young age of 32.

The trouble with a politically-charged case like this is that there are many who seek to benefit from twisting, if not outright lying, about what really happened. And the facts here are far more complicated than any campaign slogans would lead you to believe.

These two facts are undisputed by the prosecution and defense:

  1. On July 1, 2015, Kate Steinle was fatally struck in the back by a single bullet as she walked on Pier 14 with her father to view the San Francisco Bay. 
  2. Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, a Mexican citizen illegally in the United States, fired the gun that killed Steinle. 

The complicated part is pretty much everything else.

[One quick but important note: Garcia Zarate is not going free. The jury did convict him of a lesser charge of being a felon in possession of a gun, and he now awaits sentencing, which will be 16 months, two years, or three years in state prison. He has already served two years and will get credit for that time, but even if he is not given the maximum sentence, there is an outstanding U.S. Marshals Service warrant against him, and despite the sanctuary cities policy, San Francisco apparently does turn over undocumented immigrants to the feds when they have a warrant. So he is either getting deported, or spending more time in prison first, and then getting deported.]

In a detailed write-up of the verdict, the San Francisco Chronicle describes many details that have rarely or never been mentioned in the vast majority of the media coverage of this case. The main issue is that the defense was able to present a credible case that the shooting was an accident, and the prosecution aggressively overplayed their hand. Add in a misguided police interrogation strategy and you have reasonable doubt:

Defense lawyers said the shooting was an accident that happened when Garcia Zarate, who had a history of drug crimes but no record of violence, found the gun wrapped in a T-shirt or cloth under his seat on the pier just seconds before it discharged in his hands. Matt Gonzalez of the public defender’s office said his client had never handled a gun and was scared by the noise, prompting him to fling the weapon into the bay, where a diver fished it out a day later.

During the trial, jurors watched video from Garcia Zarate’s four-hour police interrogation, in which he offered varying statements about his actions on the pier. At one point he said he had aimed at a “sea animal,” and at another point, he said the gun had been under a rag that lay on the ground near the waterfront, and that it fired when he stepped on it.

Gonzalez said it was clear in the video that Garcia Zarate — who has spent much of his adult life behind bars, was living on the street before the shooting, and has a second-grade education — did not fully understand what the officers were asking him through an officer’s Spanish translation.

Grainy surveillance footage taken by a camera positioned a quarter-mile away showed that just before Garcia Zarate took his seat on the pier, a group of six people gathered at the spot. Gonzalez said it was possible that those people had discarded the gun that killed Steinle.

The Chronicle also notes that Steinle was not hit directly, but rather the bullet hit the concrete ground and then ricocheted up to hit her. The gun was a SIG Sauer pistol that had been stolen four days prior to Steinle’s death from a federal ranger’s car parked in the area.

The defense also presented evidence regarding the SIG Sauer’s propensity to accidentally fire. One of Garcia Zarate’s attorneys detailed the issues in a San Francisco Examiner article:

It’s an elite handgun intended for law enforcement and military personnel who may need to fire it with split second notice. Hence, it has a hair trigger in single-action mode. Even among well-trained users, it has a lengthy history of accidental discharges.

Most police agencies don’t make records public, but those that do reveal disturbing data. In a four-year period (2012-2015), the New York City Police Department reported 54 accidental firearm discharges, 10 involving SIG Sauers. Los Angeles County reported more than 80 accidental discharges between 2010 and 2015, five involving SIG Sauers. From 2005 to January 2011, the San Francisco Police Department reported 29 accidental discharges (a time when it issued SIG Sauers as its primary sidearm)…

The SIG Sauer in Lopez Sanchez’s case has three features prone to accidents:

1. No safety lever, making it perpetually ready for firing.
2. Manufacturer-issued trigger pull of 4.4 pounds of force (in single-action mode), which is among the lightest on the market.
3. An unlabeled decocking lever despite being essential to disengage the single-action mode. (The SIG Sauer safety manual urges “DO NOT THUMB THE HAMMER DOWN the consequences can be serious injury or death — only and ALWAYS use the decocking lever.”)

New York City requires officers using SIG Sauers to disable its single-action function because the hair trigger is too dangerous. Those using the gun can only do so in double-action mode, which has a 10-pound trigger pull.

Still capable of accidentally discharging, it provides some modicum of greater safety. However, single-action was not disabled on the handgun involved in this case, which Lopez Sanchez says he found wrapped in a T-shirt, thereby concealing its danger.

(Note: “Lopez Sanchez” is an alias of Garcia Zarate. This matter was corrected before the trial, as CBS San Francisco reported.)

So, we have a defendant with zero connection to Steinle. He had a history of drug crimes but no known violent crimes. The bullet that killed Steinle hit the ground and then ricocheted upwards. There was a video possibly showing another group of people disposing of the gun where Garcia Zarate said he found it.

Reviewing the SIG Sauer website shows these handguns cost $1,000 or more. You can see how defense counsel could easily argue that a homeless illegal immigrant would be unfamiliar with one.

All of this adds up to the defense presenting a plausible explanation for how Garcia Zarate could have fired the gun and killed Steinle by accident. That’s reasonable doubt. 

The prosecutors were under tremendous political pressure. People wanted Kate Steinle’s killer’s head on a platter, even before Donald Trump ever tweeted her name.

So it’s not that surprising that “San Francisco prosecutors told the jury that Garcia Zarate intentionally brought the gun to the pier that day with the intent of doing harm, aimed the gun toward Steinle and pulled the trigger,” as the Chronicle reported, adding that the Assistant District Attorney also “spent much of the trial seeking to prove the gun that killed Steinle couldn’t have fired without a firm pull of the trigger.”

This seems to be a classic example of prosecutorial overreach.They pushed hard for a first degree murder verdict, which requires not only proving that the defendant killed the victim, but that he did it intentionally, and that it was premeditated (planned or thought out beforehand).

Focusing their strategy on the lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter would have allowed the prosecutors to simply argue that Garcia Zarate acted in a criminally negligent way that resulted in Steinle’s death: he knew the object was a gun, he knew guns are dangerous, he should have known not to point it in the direction of people, etc.

Add to all of this that four-hour meandering police interrogation that allowed defense counsel to present their client as confused and intimidated by the police. Just one more little piece of the puzzle making it easier for defense counsel to portray their client as a naive fool who picked up a gun and caused a terrible accident rather than a vicious killer who stalked his victim.

Those who followed the Casey Anthony case in Florida will find this familiar. There, prosecutors also pushed hard for a first degree murder verdict, requiring them to convince the jury that Anthony killed her daughter Caylee intentionally and with premeditation, knowing the death penalty was on the table. This was extremely difficult, especially with no witnesses to Caylee’s death and the state of the forensic evidence when her body was found. If instead the prosecutors had focused on arguing that there was no justifiable reason for duct tape to be applied over the toddler’s face, or for her to be in the trunk of her mother’s car (plus Anthony’s period of lies about Caylee’s whereabouts), establishing manslaughter or at least the aggravated child abuse charge may have been easier.

So was Steinle’s killing an accident? Maybe. The defense put forward a plausible explanation that it was, and that was enough for the jury to find reasonable doubt after six days of deliberation, and that’s enough for a not guilty verdict.

What’s not an accident: the many political figures and media personalities who have distorted this case for various reasons. These misrepresentations are a disservice to our justice system, and to Kate Steinle’s family as well.

UPDATE: @Popehat posted some tweets with a more detailed discussion of the prosecutorial process that I found helpful and wanted to add here.

It sure seems to me that there was a good argument for manslaughter here. But did the prosecutor press that home? I wasn’t there, but it would not surprise me if they didn’t. /2

The reason is strategic. Prosecutors often choose the level of offense they want and argue hard for that and de-emphasize the arguments for the other levels out of concern that a jury will convict of a lesser included because it’s simpler to decide. /3

So it would not surprise me at all if the prosecutor didn’t really forcefully and in detail make the “even if it was accidental it was manslaughter” argument, out of fear it would encourage the jury to choose that instead of murder. /4

Jury instructions are complicated, especially lesser-included instructions. If you don;t walk the jury through them really thoroughly and hit hard your argument for why a particular one applies, they may not get it. That’s why lesser-included strategy is complex.

Follow Sarah Rumpf on Twitter: @rumpfshaker

[Note: This post has been updated after some helpful clarification from Patterico, a homicide prosecutor, to have a more accurate description of Garcia Zarate’s likely sentence. The original text said that Garcia Zarate might serve “one more year” in prison and now says “more time,” due to California’s complicated sentencing laws. Thanks, Patterico.]