SAN FRANCISCO — Lawyers painted the Mexican man on trial for killing a woman along a San Francisco pier as either a sick individual who brought a gun to the tourist spot in order to harm someone, or as a hapless homeless person who picked up an object he didn’t know was a firearm until it went off accidentally.
Jurors will consider those arguments Tuesday as the trial against Jose Ines Garcia Zarate wraps up, more than two years after the killing of Kate Steinle by a man who had been deported five times and wanted for a sixth deportation, sparking a national debate over immigration.
Then-presidential candidate Donald Trump seized upon her death to decry America’s loose borders and even Democrats weighed in, saying San Francisco authorities should have cooperated with federal immigration authorities to keep him in custody. Since taking office, Trump has threatened to withhold federal funding from cities with similar immigration laws.
But national politics did not come up in a month-long trial that featured circumstantial evidence and extensive testimony from ballistics experts. Lawyers on both sides spent closing arguments Monday punching holes into each other’s case.
Garcia Zarate sat with his back to the packed courtroom on Monday, listening to a translation of the proceedings through headphones. In the audience were Steinle’s parents.
San Francisco deputy district attorney Diana Garcia called Steinle a “vibrant life” taken too soon by the deliberate actions of Garcia Zarate, but otherwise did not dwell on the victim.
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She said Garcia Zarate found a gun somewhere and brought it to the pier, hiding it in his baggy clothes and twirling on a chair for more than 20 minutes before shooting it deliberately toward Steinle.
She told jurors that Garcia Zarate “was playing his own secret version of Russian roulette” and derided the defense’s argument that he accidentally shot a gun he didn’t know was a firearm as implausible.
“He knew exactly what he was doing,” Garcia said.
But defense attorney Matt Gonzalez told jurors Monday that prosecutors were pushing a “wild narrative of a desire to hurt someone he does not know” backed up by skimpy evidence that he was wearing clothes with large pockets.
Gonzalez said video evidence showed an unusual amount of activity in the area where Garcia Zarate was a half-hour before the shooting, backing up the defendant’s account that he found the stolen gun wrapped in a shirt under a chair on the pedestrian pier.
The bullet ricocheted on the pier’s concrete walkway before it struck Steinle.
Gonzalez is expected to wrap up his closing Tuesday, with the prosecution allowed a rebuttal.
San Francisco County Superior Court Judge Samuel Feng ruled last week that the jury of six men and six women can consider a more serious charge of first-degree murder in addition to a second-degree murder charge.
“This is about the Steinle family and the incredible resolve they’ve shown through this whole process. We’re going to do everything we can to bring them justice,” said Alex Bastian, spokesman for District Attorney George Gascon, after the court recessed for the day.
San Francisco supervisors and other elected officials have stuck by the city’s sanctuary policies despite heat from national leaders immediately after Steinle’s death.
After Garcia Zarate finished a federal prison sentence for illegal re-entry into the United States, he was transferred in March 2015 to San Francisco’s jail to face a 20-year-old charge for selling marijuana.
The sheriff’s department released him a few days later after the district attorney dropped the marijuana charge, despite a request from federal immigration officials to detain him for deportation.
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