The slaying of Kathryn Steinle, who authorities say was killed by an illegal immigrant with a criminal past, became a rallying cry for President Trump as he pushed for hard-line immigration policies.
As a candidate, he said Steinle’s killing is “yet another example of why we must secure our border immediately.” As president, he stood in front of an energized crowd in Ohio last summer, vowed to crack down on “sanctuary cities,” and called for the Senate to pass legislation that bears Steinle’s name.
Now, more than two years after the 32-year-old woman was shot while walking along San Francisco’s Embarcadero, the political debate spurred by her killing has subsided, as Trump and Republican lawmakers struggle to achieve a major legislative victory.
But inside a San Francisco County courtroom, the debate is far from political.
At the end of the murder trial of Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, who has acknowledged shooting Steinle, jurors must decide whether he intentionally opened fire at a crowd at Pier 14 on the evening of July 1, 2015, striking the young woman, or if the .40-caliber pistol he was holding accidentally discharged.
“He knew he had a gun,” Deputy District Attorney Diana Garcia said in her opening statements Monday, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. “He meant to conceal it from people. He meant to shoot it at people. He meant to shoot it at people, and he shot Kate Steinle.”
The prosecutor said Garcia Zarate, also known as Juan Francisco Lopez Sanchez, ran after the shooting and threw the weapon into the water. He was arrested shortly after. The gun had been stolen earlier from the unlocked car of a U.S. Bureau of Land Management ranger, authorities said. Garcia Zarate was not charged in the theft.
Public defender Matt Gonzalez said Steinle’s shooting was not deliberate, but rather the result of a “freakish ricochet” of a bullet.
Gonzalez said someone else wrapped the weapon in a T-shirt and left it under a bench at the pier. Garcia Zarate, a homeless man with a second-grade education, then stumbled upon it, and as he was unwrapping the gun, it accidentally discharged, Gonzalez said in his opening statement.
“He did not know he was handling a firearm,” Gonzalez said, according to NBC affiliate KNTV.
Steinle fell to the ground as the bullet pierced her aorta. Her last words were to her father, James Steinle, who was walking with her that evening.
“Help me, Dad,” she said.
If found guilty of second-degree murder, Garcia Zarate could face 15 years to life in prison.
That a young woman was killed by an illegal immigrant with seven previous felony convictions and who had been deported five times did not get lost in the political debate after Steinle’s death. Nor was the fact that the shooting happened in a “sanctuary city”, where local officials released Garcia Zarate from custody just days before Steinle was shot.
Around the time of Steinle’s killing, Garcia Zarate had just finished a nearly four-year federal prison sentence for illegally reentering the country. He was turned over to San Francisco law enforcement officials because of an outstanding warrant for a marijuana-related charge that was immediately dismissed. Local authorities later released him, despite a request from federal immigration officials to keep him in custody because of his status, according to a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by Steinle’s family.
Former San Francisco County sheriff Ross Mirkarimi said the city’s sanctuary status prevented local law enforcement from cooperating fully with immigration officials. But the backlash over the decision to release Garcia Zarate resulted in Mirkarimi’s reelection defeat last year, according to the Chronicle.
Speaking at a rally in Youngstown, Ohio, in July, Trump invoked Steinle’s shooting and called for the Senate to pass the legislation known as Kate’s Law, which would enhance penalties for convicted and deported criminals who reenter the United States illegally. The House had just passed it, along with a bill that would bar sanctuary cities from receiving federal grants. But both bills have been stalled in the Senate since late June and appear to have little chance, if any, of passing.
Earlier versions were introduced after Steinle died, but none made it through the Senate.
Kate’s Law has floundered in the Senate, where Republicans need at least eight Democratic votes to pass a bill. Muzaffar Chishti, director of the Migration Policy Institute’s office at New York University School of Law, said unless that dynamic shifts, it’s unlikely that a bill on an emotionally charged and divisive issue would become law, particularly at a time when Trump and Congress need to rally around a more unifying priority such as tax revision.
RJ Hauman, government relations director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group that advocated for the legislation, agreed that both Kate’s Law and the sanctuary cities bill are unlikely to draw support from Democrats. He also slammed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) for not scheduling the two immigration bills for a debate and a vote.
“All senators need to be put on notice that there is no constituency for protecting criminal aliens at the expense of public safety and that blocking these bills will come at a high political cost,” Hauman said in a statement.
David Popp, McConnell’s spokesman, said he does not have a schedule yet on when the two bills will be called for a vote. He said that McConnell supports the bills and that he called a vote on earlier versions of them last session, but both were blocked by Senate Democrats through a filibuster.
Chishti said it’s likely the ship has sailed for Congress to pass stand-alone legislation like Kate’s Law or the sanctuary cities bill, unless they’re incorporated into a broader immigration bill. Because the Trump administration, through Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s Justice Department, has made cracking down on illegal immigration and sanctuary cities among its hallmarks, Chishti said Congress, already facing a crowded legislative calendar and pressure to secure a major victory, is more likely to leave those issues for the executive branch.
At Garcia Zarate’s trial, which is expected to last until December, the political rhetoric that followed Steinle’s killing has been kept at bay. According to the Associated Press, the presiding judge has barred any mention of politics, immigration and gun control during the proceedings.