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Defense in Steinle Murder Trial Wants Jury to 'Dry Fire' Gun to Test Trigger Pull

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A courtroom painting depicting defense attorney Matt Gonzalez'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)

Defense attorneys representing the man accused of killing Kathryn Steinle want jurors in the San Francisco murder trial to try pulling the trigger on the gun used to kill her.

It's part of their argument that defendant Jose Inez Garcia Zarate found the gun wrapped in a T-shirt or cloth and it accidentally fired as he tried to unwrap it. A single bullet ricocheted 12 to 15 feet from Garcia Zarate and traveled another 78 feet to hit Steinle in the back.

"I have handled this very firearm -- the trigger pull is extremely light," defense attorney Matt Gonzalez said. "That’s why I’m so confident that I would like the jury to be able to handle it. And anybody who believes this gun cannot fire accidentally -- I have no doubt that would settle it. There would be no issue."

The jury heard testimony Tuesday on the mechanics of the Sig Sauer P239 semi-automatic handgun from the San Francisco police criminalist who matched the gun retrieved from San Francisco Bay to the bullet removed from Steinle's body.

The gun is a smaller model in a series of .40-caliber semi-automatic pistols commonly used by law enforcement and the U.S. military. Criminalist Andy Smith testified that SFPD officers carry a larger framed version, the P226.


The pistol used to kill Steinle was stolen from a U.S. Bureau of Land Management ranger's car four days before the killing, and there's no evidence tying Garcia Zarate to the burglary. The judge instructed the jury Tuesday to assume he didn't steal the gun.

During direct questioning by prosecutor Diana Garcia, Smith testified about several safety features of the weapon, but said it did not have an external safety lever that would prevent it from firing.

Instead, the gun has what Smith called an "internal passive safety," which prevents it from firing unless the trigger is pulled.

The component, called a firing pin block, prevents the gun from accidentally discharging if it's dropped, Smith said during cross-examination, but it in no way prevents the gun from firing if the trigger is pulled.

Gonzalez asked Smith if he was aware of accidental discharges by city police officers involving their Sig Sauer handguns.

"Are you aware that between 2005 and 2011, there were 29 accidental discharges by San Francisco police officers?" Gonzalez asked. Smith said he didn't know.

If the gun is cocked -- or in single-action mode -- it has a lighter trigger pull. Smith testified that he measured the pressure required to pull the trigger from single-action at 4.8 to 5.5 pounds. When the gun is not cocked -- called double-action mode -- it takes from 9 to 9.8 pounds to pull the trigger, he said.

But Gonzalez argued that 4 to 5 pounds is actually very little pressure. Outside court, he said that's why he wants the jury to try pulling the trigger.

"We want the judge to allow the jury to test, to dry fire in single-action mode," he said. "If you handle this firearm in single-action mode and you press the trigger, it’s very light."

Gonzalez said he has asked Judge Samuel Feng to allow jurors to test-fire the unloaded weapon, but the judge did not yet make a decision.

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