SAN FRANCISCO — The ruling by the First District Court of Appeal overturned the only guilty verdict San Francisco prosecutors won against Jose Inez Garcia-Zarate in a case that roiled immigration debates and became a talking point for Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign.
In a four-week trial in 2017, the jury found Garcia-Zarate guilty on a charge of being a felon in possession of a firearm but not guilty on charges of murder, involuntary manslaughter and assault with a semiautomatic firearm. On Friday, the appeals court ruled that the judge in the case had failed to properly instruct the jury on a legal theory that could have led to a not-guilty verdict on the gun charge.
It will now be up to San Francisco prosecutors to decide whether they want to re-try Garcia-Zarate on the charge. As of late Friday, the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office had not responded to a request for comment about the court’s opinion.
The ruling has no direct bearing on a separate federal gun possession case against Garcia-Zarate. He remains in custody at the Santa Rita Jail as he awaits a trial set for January in that case.
Steinle’s killing touched off a political firestorm because Garcia-Zarate, a native of Mexico, was in the country illegally and had been deported five times before the shooting. Trump and other conservative commentators seized on the shooting to blast San Francisco’s “sanctuary city” policies, under which authorities had released Garcia-Zarate from jail after a previous arrest, rather than turning him over to immigration authorities.
Garcia-Zarate’s attorneys have described the federal case against him as a political prosecution motivated by the Trump Administration’s anger at the San Francisco jury verdict.
San Francsico County prosecutors had charged Garcia-Zarate with first-degree murder, arguing that he intentionally aimed and fired the gun at Steinle as she walked along Pier 14 on San Francisco’s Embarcadero on July 1, 2015.
Garcia-Zarate’s attorneys, however, contended that the shooting was an accident and that the gun went off in Garcia-Zarate’s hands without his pulling the trigger or meaning to hurt anyone. The bullet that killed Steinle ricocheted off the pavement about 80 feet before it struck her.
Garcia-Zarate was not sentenced to any additional prison time for the gun possession conviction because he already had served nearly two-and-a-half years in jail; the maximum sentence for the gun possession conviction was three years.
Garcia-Zarate’s lawyers argued under the theory of “momentary possession” that he had never truly possessed the gun that killed Steinle because he didn’t realize the object he was holding was a firearm until it went off. They cited statements from Garcia-Zarate that the gun had been wrapped in a bundle of cloth, making it difficult to see what it was, and that he tossed it into San Francisco Bay immediately after the weapon went off because he wanted to make it stop firing.
“He didn’t know the risk — he didn’t know the gun was there,” attorney Tony Serra, one of the lawyers who represented Garcia-Zarate, said Friday.
In their appeal, Garcia-Zarate’s attorneys said Judge Samuel Feng should have instructed jurors on laws for momentary possession. Feng did not do so — even after jurors asked a question about the definition of possession during deliberations — because he said he did not see a factual basis to do so.
“It is undisputed that (Garcia-Zarate) was holding the gun when it fired,” wrote Judge Sandra L. Margulies, with two other judges concurring. “But that fact alone does not establish he possessed the gun for more than a moment. To possess the gun, (Garcia-Zarate) had to know he was holding it.”
The court, Margulies wrote, could not definitively say whether Garcia-Zarate knew he was holding a gun before it went off.
But, she wrote, “It is reasonably probable at least one juror may have reached a different conclusion if the jury had been instructed on the momentary possession charge.”
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