As the high-profile murder trial over the 2015 slaying of Kathryn Steinle opened in San Francisco Monday, defense attorneys argued to include testimony about a previously undisclosed auto burglary they say is related to the case.
Steinle's death fueled a hard-line stance on immigration enforcement championed by President Trump and Republican lawmakers. The case inspired "Kate's Law," which passed the House in June and would impose harsher criminal sentences for people who repeatedly enter the U.S. illegally, as defendant Jose Inez Garcia Zarate did.
Garcia Zarate, who was previously identified as Juan Francisco Lopez Sanchez, is facing a first-degree murder charge for allegedly firing the shot that ricocheted off San Francisco's Pier 14 and fatally struck Steinle in the back on July 1, 2015. But exactly how Garcia Zarate came to possess the Sig Sauer P239 handgun, apparently stolen from a federal Bureau of Land Management ranger's car four days before the shooting, is a cornerstone of his defense.
His attorneys plan to argue that Garcia Zarate found the gun wrapped in a T-shirt somewhere near the pier. They say this type of gun -- a favorite of law enforcement -- has a near-hair-trigger pull if it's cocked. They say the gun went off accidentally as Garcia Zarate handled it.
The burglary of the BLM ranger's car was made public shortly after the shooting, and San Francisco Superior Court Judge Samuel Feng ruled Monday that Ranger John Woychowski's testimony is relevant to the trial, over the prosecution's objection.
Assistant District Attorney Diana Garcia argued that the auto burglary is irrelevant to the charges against Garcia Zarate.
"It’s our theory that he had the gun -- he chose where he wanted to fire it," Garcia said in court. "The people are not arguing that he stole the gun."
She added: "I don't want the jury deliberating on how officers should store their gun in their car."
Feng disagreed, saying the ranger's testimony is appropriate.
"He is the only person that can testify as to this gun, no one else," Feng said from the bench. "In addition, as to the gun’s condition, how many bullets in the cartridge, was it cocked? De-cocked? He’s the only one."
But in a new wrinkle, Garcia Zarate's defense attorneys are seeking more information on a second car break-in that apparently occurred near the burglary of the BLM ranger's car. Items stolen from Woychowski's car, including an extra magazine for his service weapon, were reportedly found inside the second car, according to defense attorneys.
"There’s in effect another crime scene, neither of which can be tied to Garcia Zarate," Chief Deputy Public Defender Matt Gonzalez said after the hearing.
Gonzalez says the two auto burglaries are relevant to the murder trial because the path the gun traveled from Woychowski's car to Pier 14 establishes that Garcia Zarate didn't steal the gun but stumbled on it by accident.
"The excising of this part of the narrative, to go straight to the pier, it would invite speculation on the part of the jury," Gonzalez told the judge, in arguing for evidence about the second car break-in to be included in the trial.
The public, however, won't be left to speculate on the arguments of attorneys over evidence and testimony in the trial, despite the defense's attempt to seal those records. Gonzalez said the extensive media attention on the case could bias potential jurors.
Feng said the defense's application to seal all pretrial motions in the case was "improper and has minimal respect for the case law."
"We are balancing free speech against fair trials," Feng said from the bench, noting that much of the evidence in the case is already in the public sphere.
The prosecution opposed sealing the motions, which would also have likely required closed hearings to debate them.
"Sealing such an incredibly public case to begin with -- something that's been in the national dialogue -- was something we thought was problematic and a disservice to the public interest," district attorney's spokesman Max Szabo said after the hearing.
"The people would advocate for a public and open forum in this case," prosecutor Diana Garcia said in court.
Feng did not make a final determination on how much, if any, information about the second auto burglary will make it into the trial. The next hearing in the case is scheduled for Sept. 5.