“Good morning, good morning! Happy Monday!” Judge Samuel K. Feng announced as he entered the courtroom. He apologized about the broken air conditioning — at 10 a.m., the room was already uncomfortably warm — and then turned to the jury.
“Juror number eight, you’re in charge of chocolate,” he said.
Feng, with his cheerful demeanor, often presides over difficult, high-drama cases. He was the judge at the trial of German Woods, who assaulted and robbed low-income Asian seniors during a brazen summer rampage. He oversaw a first-degree murder conviction in a Mission drive-by shooting. And he led the proceedings when gadfly citizen journalist Michael Petrelis infamously photographed then-Sup. Scott Weiner in a City Hall bathroom. But the case that launched Monday in his courtroom is his highest-profile yet: The People vs. Jose Ines Garcia Zarate — or, as many people refer to it — the “Kate Steinle trial.”
Kate Steinle, 32, was shot and killed on Pier 14 on July 1, 2015, in a case that immediately dominated headlines. The attractive, blond young woman died in her father’s arms, and the man charged with murder — who then went by the name Juan Francisco López-Sánchez — is an undocumented Mexican immigrant with a felony criminal record. As an added intrigue, the gun that was used was stolen from a Bureau of Land Management ranger’s vehicle on the Embarcadero four days prior.
As evidence surfaced, the case got more complicated. There is no physical proof that Garcia Zarate, 45, was the one who broke into the car. He claimed he’d found the gun under a seat on the pier, wrapped in a T-shirt. He has a second-grade education and speaks very little English, rendering his all-night interview with police moot. And the bullet ricocheted off the pier’s cement surface, raising doubts as to whether or not Garcia Zarate had aimed at Steinle.
The media greedily ate up the Steinle family’s willingness to give interviews to the press and share photos of Kate, and their subsequent lawsuits against the city of San Francisco, BLM, and ICE for negligence.
President Donald Trump, a candidate at the time, picked up the case in his call for the elimination of Sanctuary Cities, which refuse to disclose immigrants’ legal status to Immigration and Customs Enforcement employees. “This man, or this animal, that shot that wonderful, that beautiful woman in San Francisco, this guy was pushed back by Mexico,” he told CNN three months before he was elected.
So it was unsurprising that national media flooded the courtroom for the launch of the trial on Monday, with Fox News, the Associated Press, and even a couple right-wing bloggers throwing their hats into the mix.
But the courtroom, despite its attendees from all over the country, ran much like any other on its first day. The wood-paneled room was small and lit by fluorescents. The seats were hard. The jury was read the seemingly unending list of instructions. And the case hinged not on the legal status of Garcia Zarate or whether or not he had broken into the BLM ranger’s car, but on the reliability of a .40-caliber Sig Sauer P239 semi-automatic pistol, and whether it could have gone off accidentally.
Deputy District Attorney Diana Garcia believes it didn’t, and launched her opening statements to the jury without cutting any corners.
“She’s dead because this defendant — Jose Ines Garcia Zarate — pointed a gun in her direction, and pulled the trigger,” she said.
The gun, she argued, was in perfect condition. It had been examined in a routine check by an armorer three months prior. BLM Ranger John Woychowski never reported it misfiring. The prosecution has a firearm expert, who will apparently testify that “the only way for the gun to do odd is with a pull of the trigger,” Garcia says. “If the gun is dropped or mishandled in some way it will not go off.”
Public Defender Matt Gonzalez argues that assessment is incorrect. The Sig Sauer is a standard-issue second firearm for BLM — to be used in an emergency, when the first gun is out of bullets, has been taken from someone, or has been disabled in some way. It’s designed, Gonzalez says, to be discharged quickly — and it’s distributed to government staff with that in mind.
“The gun has what’s commonly referred to as a hair trigger,” he says. “It’s easier for you to get off a quick first shot.”
That ease of discharge, Gonzalez argues, has resulted in a history of the gun going off during such inopportune times as when it’s dropped, caught in a shirt button, stepped on, or when someone is unholstering it.
In addition, the fact that the bullet hit something else before it pierced Steinle’s lower back is a sign, Gonzalez says, that her death was not intentional. Calling it a “freakish ricochet,” Gonzales argues that “An expert marksman could not make this shot if he tried.” The case, he implied, hinges as much on the “little rocks” in the surface of the concrete as it does on the gun.
But Gonzalez was smart: He focused not just on evidence, but emotion, knowing that Steinle’s father, James, would take the stand after him. “It can be true that it’s a tragedy and an accident,” he told the jury, hinting that the emotional testimony they were about to hear should not sway their opinion of the case. “An accident doesn’t become something other than an accident because we don’t like the result of it.”
And James’ time on the stand was painful to watch. Dressed in a neat button-down shirt, he spoke slowly and eloquently, often taking long pauses to gather his composure before answering Garcia’s questions. Calling the incident a “time blur,” he gently told the tale of that day. They’d had lunch at Perry’s. Kate had taken selfies just moments before the incident. “It was a pop or a bang,” James said. “I instinctively looked over at Kate. She had her arms outstretched and said ‘Dad help me, help me.’
“I grabbed her and held her, gave her mouth-to-mouth,” he continued. “I helped her until the paramedics showed up.”
But “Kate had her eyes closed and was having trouble breathing.” When a man came over to help, they both rolled her over and found the bullet hole in her back. It had severed her abdominal aorta, but “It was quite odd, because it wasn’t bleeding,” her father said.
She died two hours later, at San Francisco General Hospital.
The case is tragic for everyone involved — and for the victim’s family, it’s surely compounded by the national attention and Republicans’ use of Steinle’s death. (The U.S. House of Representatives in July passed an anti-immigration bill it called “Kate’s Law,” which her family had nothing to do with.)
And the case is undeniably racially charged. Gonzalez highlighted this, as he wrapped up his opening statement. “If this had happened to a college kid or a Swedish tourist,” he asked, “would they be charged with murder?”
The trial of The People vs. Jose Ines Garcia Zarate will continue well into November. Stay in the loop for future updates from SF Weekly.