Feds Balk at Subpoena for Ranger's Testimony in Kathryn Steinle Murder Case

Juan Francisco Lopez Sanchez's defense attorneys Matt Gonzalez (center) and Francisco Ugarte (right) are seeking the testimony of Bureau of Land Management Ranger John Woychowski. (Alex Emslie/KQED)

An attorney for the U.S. Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management is arguing that the federal government must give its permission for a ranger whose stolen gun was used to kill Kathryn Steinle to testify in an upcoming murder trial.

And that's unlikely.

But the legal reasoning offered in a Thursday letter to defense attorneys for Juan Francisco Lopez Sanchez, who is accused of killing Steinle, appears to contradict itself.

The letter cites a federal case from 1951, and Department of the Interior regulations growing out of it, that generally prohibit federal employees from being subpoenaed to testify about their jobs or as experts.

"[I]t is the Department's general policy not to allow its employees to testify or to produce Department records either upon request or by subpoena," the letter says, citing U.S. Department of the Interior regulations.

Bureau of Land Management Ranger John Woychowski was named El Centro Field Office 'Ranger of the Year' in 2011.
Bureau of Land Management Ranger John Woychowski was named El Centro Field Office 'Ranger of the Year' in 2011. (Bureau of Land Management California via Internet Archive)

The letter continues:

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"While these regulations provide at § 2.80 (c) (4) that this subpart does not apply to 'Federal, State and Tribal criminal court proceedings' in fact, the Department will review your ... Request and decide whether to deny it, or narrow the scope of any testimony or production allowed based on your written response."

Kathryn Steinle's slaying has garnered national attention, driven largely by politicians and pundits pushing for harsher immigration policies. Lopez Sanchez is a Mexican national with a long history of deportations and illegal re-entries in the U.S.

But his defense attorneys argue that Lopez Sanchez has no history of violent crime or theft, and he simply picked up an object wrapped in cloth that he found on San Francisco's Pier 14. They say Steinle's death was an accident: Woychowski's lost Sig Sauer pistol went off in Lopez Sanchez's hands, the bullet ricocheted off the pier and struck Steinle in the back about 100 feet away.

Woychowski's testimony is critical to the case, defense attorneys said, and the federal government's arguments against it don't apply.

"We’re citing Bureau of Land Management’s own regulations for why the objection that they’re raising doesn’t apply," said Matt Gonzalez, San Francisco chief deputy public defender and one of Lopez Sanchez's defense attorneys. "He started the chain of events that put this gun on that pier, in our opinion, and so his relevance is obvious."

The court's subpoena required Woychowski to attend a hearing in San Francisco on Friday and to bring "documentation, records, and communications regarding your Sig Sauer firearm reported stolen to San Francisco Police Department on June 27, 2015, including any records, requests, or notice submitted to your employer."

"Mr. Woychowski has in his possession evidence that is relevant to the case that will help the jury understand the condition of the weapon at the time that he left it in the back seat of a car in a backpack fully loaded," said Deputy Public Defender Francisco Ugarte, who also represents Lopez Sanchez. "We don’t know the history of the weapon. We know nothing really about the condition it was held in. It’s the federal government: We’re not even sure why they should have standing in this case to prevent one of its employees, who was off-duty, to not testify in court."

Ugarte wrote in a motion filed Friday in San Francisco Superior Court that "[t]he agency's policy as stated to Defendant would prohibit an employee of BLM from responding to a service of divorce papers or a fix-it-ticket; the policy does not apply in those cases and does not apply here."

"He’s the last known person to have held the weapon before it reached the pier," Ugarte said. "He knows about the condition in which the weapon was stored and the history of the weapon itself. This incident involved a ricochet shot of 100 feet that points toward an accident. ... He should simply appear in court and help us understand what happened."

A spokeswoman for the Bureau of Land Management declined to comment. Read the defense attorneys' latest motion in the case, the subpoena and the Department of the Interior attorney's response below.

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