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Steinle Trial Opens: Intent, the Gun and Grief Take Center Stage

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An artist's rendering of prosecutor Diana Garcia's opening statement in the Kathryn Steinle murder trial at the San Francisco Hall of Justice on Oct. 23, 2017. (Vicki Ellen Behringer/Courtroom Artist)

James Steinle recounted the last moments he spent with his daughter from the witness stand Monday, the opening day of the murder trial over the July 1, 2015, slaying of Kathryn Steinle.

He'd taken BART from Pleasanton with a family friend to meet his 32-year-old daughter, whom friends and family called Kate, for a meandering evening stroll along San Francisco's waterfront.

A few minutes after 6 p.m., the trio ended up walking toward the end of Pier 14, adjacent to the Ferry Building, to "watch the birds and the boats," Steinle testified. His daughter took a few selfies.

Then, Steinle testified, a loud noise startled him.

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"I instinctively looked at Kate," he said, his voice quivering. "She put up her arms and said, 'Help me, Dad.' I grabbed her and held her, gave her mouth-to-mouth."

Time seemed to blur at that point, Steinle said.

"Kate couldn't talk," he said. "Her eyes were closed. She was having trouble breathing."

At some point, a stranger helped him roll his daughter over to discover a bullet hole in her back. She died later at the hospital.

Within about an hour, police arrested the man now accused of murder in Kathryn Steinle's death, a Mexican citizen named Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, also known as Juan Francisco Lopez Sanchez. The prosecution and defense agree the bullet that killed Steinle was fired from a semi-automatic handgun in Garcia Zarate's hands. But the case that ignited a political firestorm over immigration policy and so-called sanctuary cities is anything but simple.

The Prosecution

Assistant District Attorney Diana Garcia began her opening statement by pulling a black Sig Sauer P239 handgun from a manila envelope and holding it up in front of the jury.

"This is the gun," she said. "[Steinle] is dead because this man pointed this gun in her direction and pulled the trigger."

Her statement didn't address a motive for the seemingly random shooting, because it's unknown. But she emphasized that not only did Garcia Zarate fire the fatal gunshot, he also meant to do so.

"I will prove to you that this defendant intentionally fired this gun at people on that pier," prosecutor Garcia said.

While Garcia acknowledged there are no witnesses who actually saw the shooting, she touched on a handful of civilians likely to be called in the case: A woman who took a photo that captured Garcia Zarate sitting in a spinning metal chair along the south side of the pier sometime before the shooting, and two other women who say they saw Garcia Zarate hurriedly leaving just after Steinle collapsed.

Garcia also addressed some of the evidence in the case: Where the gun came from, how it got to the pier, and gunshot residue found on Garcia Zarate's right hand.

Most important to Garcia Zarate's guilt or innocence, Garcia argued his intentions as he handled the gun are clear.

"He knew he had a gun," she told the jury. "He meant to conceal it. He meant to fire it on that pier. He meant to kill Kathryn Steinle."

The Defense

Lead defense attorney Matt Gonzalez also started his opening statement with the murder weapon.

"The gun was pointed at the ground," he said, referencing the ricochet in the bullet's path between Garcia Zarate and Steinle. "It missed Kathryn Steinle by 78 feet initially."

"There has never been a ricochet charged as a murder in the history of San Francisco," Gonzalez said.

A projector displayed the crux of the defense's case on a screen across the courtroom: "This was a tragedy and this was an accident," it said in large black letters.

Gonzalez argued that Garcia Zarate, starving and destitute after living on the streets of San Francisco for 2½ months, reached beneath the spinning metal chair to find a heavy bundle of cloth.

"When he was arrested, he had some cracker crumbs in his pockets, some cigarette butts," Gonzalez said. "He is exactly the type of person who might investigate an object on the ground that you or I might walk by."

The argument draws on a stipulation, or agreement, between the prosecution and the defense in the case: Police were unable to find any evidence tying Garcia Zarate to an auto burglary four days before Steinle was shot that put a federal land management ranger's .40-caliber handgun on San Francisco's streets. The jury must presume Garcia Zarate didn't steal it.

"We don’t know where that gun was in that four-day period -- it was in a state of flux," Gonzalez said. "He was never seen with the gun. He never showed the gun to anyone because he didn't have it."

Gonzalez displayed frames from grainy video of the pier that day taken from a great distance, video that the prosecution is also referencing in its case. He said a sequence of frames just before the shooting show Garcia Zarate appearing to bend down -- implying he'd just discovered the gun.

"At that moment right before the shooting … you can see some degree of crouching over," Gonzalez said, though the frames projected on the screen from those moments of the video were not clear.

Frames showing silhouettes of several people gathering around the chair that Garcia Zarate sat in, about a half an hour before the defendant got there, were more distinct, however. Gonzalez said outside court that the portion of the video showed "very peculiar behavior" and a strange "coincidence that it's at the exact location."

As for the gunshot residue, Gonzalez said it actually strengthens the defense's case. Two tests discovered just one particle on Garcia Zarate's hands, when you'd expect "hundreds of thousands of particles" on someone's hand who had recently fired a gun, Gonzalez said.

"One of the reasons why he doesn't have a lot of gunshot residue on his hand is because the object was indeed wrapped in cloth," Gonzalez said.

The Ranger

Both prosecution and defense plan to call U.S. Bureau of Land Management Ranger John Woychowski as a witness, a recent development on the DA's part after the prosecution and federal government's attempt to prevent him from testifying were unsuccessful.

Assistant DA Garcia described Woychowski's June 27, 2015, trip from the Imperial County town of El Centro to San Francisco late in the evening. He and his then-fiance, plus three children, stopped near the Embarcadero for dinner around 10 p.m. and returned to their car to find a window broken and a backpack containing Woychowski's Sig Sauer pistol missing.

Those details were first disclosed by KQED on Friday in a report about Woychowski's promotion five months after Steinle was killed with his stolen weapon.

Garcia didn't criticize Woychowski in front of the jury, but defense attorney Gonzalez did.

"The BLM ranger, he is not on trial," Gonzalez said in court. "I'm sure he feels badly about what happened. But for his negligence, we would not be here."

In a pretrial victory for the defense, Judge Samuel Feng ruled BLM law enforcement policies could come into evidence. Woychowski's storage of his weapon without locking it would have violated the rules if he were on duty and in an official vehicle. But the rules appear not to have addressed his travel in a personal car, on his way to an assignment but not actively on duty.

He committed no misconduct, according to a review the federal government described in court filings. He was not disciplined and was promoted in December 2015 to a supervisory position.

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