Pier Shooting Suspect Pleads Not Guilty to Murder Charge

A well-wisher drops off flowers at the site where 32-year-old Kate Steinle was killed earlier this month on San Francisco's bay front.  (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

An undocumented immigrant accused of fatally shooting a woman at a San Francisco pier pleaded not guilty today to murder with malice aforethought, with his defense attorney arguing that the shooting was likely accidental.

Matt Gonzalez, the chief attorney at the San Francisco Public Defender's Office, said at Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez's arraignment this afternoon that the death of Pleasanton native and San Francisco resident 32-year-old Kathryn Steinle was tragic but that "very likely this was an accidental shooting."

However, Assistant District Attorney Diana Garcia told Judge Daniel Flores that the suspect allegedly shot an innocent victim in the back at close range.

Sanchez, who is 52 years old according to the DA's office and who has been deported from the United States on multiple occasions for various felonies, was speaking to the court through a Spanish interpreter.

Twice during his arraignment Sanchez told the judge in English, "I'm not guilty," although the judge had already heard his plea and was asking him an unrelated question regarding scheduling.

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U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials took custody of Sanchez in March, when he was remanded to the agency after serving a multiyear federal prison sentence for felony re-entry following deportation, ICE spokeswoman Gillian Christensen said in a statement.

ICE turned Sanchez over to San Francisco police on March 26 on an outstanding drug warrant, Christensen said.

San Francisco Assistant District Attorney Alex Bastian said the outstanding $5,000 warrant was for selling $20 worth of marijuana at United Nations Plaza in 1995.

On March 27, a San Francisco Superior Court judge dismissed the drug charges against Sanchez.

ICE requested he be returned to its custody upon his release, but the San Francisco Sheriff's Department did not honor that request, according to Christensen.

San Francisco has a "sanctuary city" policy that prohibits law enforcement officials from detaining individuals on the basis of an immigration detainer when they would otherwise be eligible for release from custody.

Christensen said Sanchez had been deported five times, most recently in 2009. His criminal history includes seven prior felonies, including four involving narcotics, Christensen said.

Gonzalez, however, told the judge today that Sanchez had no convictions for violent offenses.

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Bail for Sanchez was set at $5 million, and he was ordered to appear in court for a prehearing conference on July 27.

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