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How the Steinle Verdict Could Alter the Political Landscape

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Defendant Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, who is also known as Juan Francisco Lopez Sanchez, at his arraignment on July 7, 2015, in San Francisco. (Michael Macor-Pool/Getty Images)

Minutes after a San Francisco jury acquitted an undocumented immigrant of murder and manslaughter in the death of Kathryn Steinle, his defense attorney, Matt Gonzalez, suggested that President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions reflect upon the fact that everyone -- including them -- is entitled to the presumption of innocence until found guilty.

Gonzalez said he hoped "they would reflect on that before they comment or disparage the verdict."

Minutes later, Sessions issued a dire statement.

“San Francisco’s decision to protect criminal aliens led to the preventable and heartbreaking death of Kate Steinle," he said.

In a reference to San Francisco's sanctuary city policy, Sessions added: "I urge the leaders of the nation’s communities to reflect on the outcome of this case and consider carefully the harm they are doing to their citizens by refusing to cooperate with federal law enforcement officers.”

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San Francisco is one of dozens of so-called sanctuary cities in a state that just enacted its own "sanctuary" policy, limiting local law enforcement cooperation with federal immigration authorities.

UC Hastings law professor Rory Little said he wasn't surprised by the jury's not guilty verdict from a legal perspective.

"There was not evidence beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant intended to shoot [Steinle] or that he intended to shoot the gun at all," Little said.

That said, Little believes "it’s likely to be perceived as, 'Oh, that liberal San Francisco let a killer loose.' "

Conservatives seized on Steinle's death as proof that cities like San Francisco are shielding dangerous criminals, a sentiment Trump echoed in a tweet a few hours after what he called "a disgraceful verdict," adding "no wonder the people of our Country are so angry with illegal immigration."

But defenders of the city's policy note that defendant Jose Ines Garcia Zarate didn't have a violent past and that he had been in the custody of federal officials before being sent to San Francisco a few months prior to the shooting.

So, in this hyperpartisan era, how will the verdict and sanctuary policies play out in state and national races next year?

"This goes to the heart of the sanctuary city movement," said Republican consultant Sean Walsh.

Walsh believes what's needed now is a thoughtful discussion about border security and immigration, but he doubts that will happen.

"It gives the real extremists on the anti-immigration side a lot of ammunition," Walsh said.  "A lot of people will be appalled by this verdict, I can tell you that."

A well-wisher drops off flowers at the site where 32-year-old Kathryn Steinle was killed on July 6, 2015 in San Francisco.
A well-wisher drops off flowers at the site where 32-year-old Kathryn Steinle was killed on July 1, 2015, in San Francisco. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Consultant Mike Madrid, a Republican who is helping Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa's campaign for governor, says the verdict "brings up old issues and old wounds" from immigration wars in California during the 1990s.

"California fought these culture wars 20 years ago and they’re mostly decided now," Madrid said.

In fact, a new poll from the Public Policy Institute of California found that 86 percent of Californians favor a path to citizenship for people in the U.S. illegally, if certain conditions are met.

However, Madrid notes, "a lot of polling suggest sanctuary cities are not as popular in California as people believe."

Walsh, the Republican consultant, said Thursday's verdict could provide an opening for Villaraigosa.

"He’s very supportive of having people come out of the shadows, Walsh said. "But he’s also very hard on criminal aliens."

"It took Nixon to go to China and maybe it will take the first Latino governor in more than 100 years in California to push back on those who support unreasonable policies like not incarcerating or expelling criminal aliens," Walsh added.

Roger Salazar, a Democratic political consultant, said the president and other hard-line immigration Republicans outside California will certainly try to paint the case as a byproduct of San Francisco's liberal politics.

"There is obviously nothing good about a tragic situation like this -- and I think what's even more unfortunate is that Trump and the White House will use the verdict to further try and divide people," Salazar said.

Immigration advocates in California also argued that the public and politicians now face a critical choice. Angela Chan, policy director and senior staff attorney at the Asian Law Caucus, has helped write many of the sanctuary policies and laws in California.

Chan said she hopes politicians "will not allow this terrible tragedy to be used to further an extremist agenda."

"Instead, we hope that people from all walks of life will be able to come together amidst the grief to advance our deepest values as a society," she said.

"Immigrants are a fundamental part of our communities. We need 'sanctuary' policies in order to protect residents from troubling abuses of federal power, limit racial profiling, and address persistent issues of confidence in law enforcement -- including making sure victims and witnesses can seek help without fear of deportation."

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