A ranger with the federal Bureau of Land Management will testify in an upcoming trial charging a Mexican national with murder for the slaying of Kathryn Steinle in San Francisco two years ago. This marks a change in the U.S. government's initial position that federal employees cannot be subpoenaed to testify in state court cases.
The agreement between defense attorneys representing Juan Francisco Lopez Sanchez and lawyers with the federal government was announced in San Francisco Superior Court on Friday. It appears to end about a month of legal wrangling that reached its peak last week with a local prosecutor accusing defense attorneys of "publicizing" BLM ranger John Woychowski's name and using "underhanded tactics that caused public humiliation of an officer who happened to be the victim of an auto burglary that is still an open police investigation."
Steinle's killing received national attention after then-presidential candidate Donald Trump and congressional Republicans seized on the case as an example of violent crime committed by people living in the U.S. illegally and blamed San Francisco's "sanctuary" ordinance for Lopez Sanchez's release from county jail.
The origin of the weapon used to kill Steinle on Pier 14 received less attention, but California legislators passed a state law in 2016 that made it an infraction for law enforcement officers to leave their guns unsecured.
Woychowski's gun was stolen after he reportedly left it in a backpack in a parked car when he stopped for dinner in San Francisco, four days before Steinle's death on July 1, 2015. Lopez Sanchez was never accused, nor charged, with the auto burglary, and his defense attorneys are arguing that he found Woychowski's Sig Sauer handgun shortly before the shooting, wrapped in a T-shirt. They say the gun fired accidentally as Lopez Sanchez handled it, before he knew what it was.
"The weapon was pointed at the ground at the time of discharge," said Francisco Ugarte, a deputy public defender who represents Lopez Sanchez.
Testimony at the preliminary hearing in the case established the bullet traveled about 12 feet before it ricocheted off the concrete pier, then another 78 feet before it struck Steinle in the back.
Prosecutors have repeatedly said they fail to see how Woychowski's testimony is relevant.
"The defendant is charged with murder and as such the issues that are presented are did he pull the trigger? And when he did so, if he did so, did he do so with implied malice?" San Francisco District Attorney's Office spokesman Max Szabo said. "Whether or not this ranger’s testimony is relevant, being as though the defendant is not charged with, for example, auto burglary, remains to be seen."
Although the federal government agreed to produce Woychowski for the trial, according to Superior Court Judge Richard Loftus, the exact scope of his testimony will be determined by the judge presiding over the trial, who has yet to be selected.
Attorneys with the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Department of Justice have attended court for the past two weeks. They declined repeated requests for comment.
Lopez Sanchez's defense attorneys say Woychowski was the last known person to have possession of the gun before their client found it near the pier.
"The physical traits of the discharge appear to be an accident. The condition of the weapon itself, the trigger pull, the history, whether it was loaded -- all of those issues are relevant," Ugarte said.
An attorney representing the Department of the Interior, which oversees the Bureau of Land Management, wrote to Lopez Sanchez's defense attorneys on July 13 that they should provide a written request outlining the exact testimony they expected from Woychowski. State and federal attorneys speaking on condition of anonymity said such requests are routine in cases seeking a federal employee's testimony.
"The BLM wanted to try to restrict the areas that he could testify in," said Chief Deputy Public Defender Matt Gonzalez, who also represents Lopez Sanchez. "We made it clear to this court that the trial judge would get to decide that, not the BLM."