Just before 3:15 p.m. last Thursday, the San Francisco Superior Court sent out a tweet: “A verdict has been reached in the Garcia Zarate case.”
With 30 minutes to get to court for the jury’s verdict, members of the media went haywire. Reporters camped out in the hallway outside the courtroom were first in line. The whole building was wired with TV cameras, their cables taped to walls and running down stairwells. Photographers rushed through security, and journalists hopped out of cabs all up and down Bryant Street, frantically talking to editors on the phone.
When the verdict was read — that 45-year-old Mexican national Jose Ines Garcia Zarate was found not guilty of first-degree murder, second-degree murder, involuntary manslaughter, or assault with a semi-automatic firearm — the news raced across the nation at lightspeed.
Within an hour, the hashtag #boycottsanfrancisco started trending. Two hours after SF Weekly’s story on the verdict was published, we had 1,200 Facebook comments blasting the verdict, mostly from out-of-state supporters spewing hate and intolerance. We responded here.
The jury’s decision made such a splash that Trump himself sent a message to the nation. “The Kate Steinle killer came back and back over the weakly protected Obama border, always committing crimes and being violent, and yet this info was not used in court. His exoneration is a complete travesty of justice. BUILD THE WALL!” he tweeted Friday morning, showing his ignorance about the case. Garcia Zarate, although a seven-time felon, had never been convicted of a violent crime.
Regardless of what side they were on, people had a field day with the story for two days. But over the weekend the chatter died down. On a local level, however, the story is far from over. Garcia Zarate is still in custody, and his future is unknown.
On Monday, defense attorney Matt Gonzalez announced that the Public Defender’s Office will challenge Garcia Zarate’s lone conviction, for being a felon in possession of a firearm.
“It’s fairly standard in a conviction to file an appeal, so an appellant lawyer can look it over and see if any mistakes were made,” Tamara Aparton, spokesperson for the Public Defender’s Office, told SF Weekly.
In this case, Gonzalez could argue that the jury was not given adequate instructions in determining guilt in momentary possession. As Garcia Zarate claims he only held the gun for a moment before it went off and he threw it in the water, the conviction could be overturned.
The appeal will not be filed until after Garcia Zarate’s sentencing takes place on Dec. 14. Based on his sole conviction, he could be required to serve a sentence ranging from 16 months to three years. But as he’s already served two-and-a-half years in jail, he would be released.
The expectation thus far is that it’s likely Garcia Zarate would then be deported. The U.S. Marshal has already issued a warrant for his arrest. If he chooses to fight deportation, he will need to secure an immigration lawyer; Aparton confirmed that the Public Defender’s Office is only representing him in this criminal case.
But things could get more complicated for Garcia Zarate. On Tuesday evening, the Department of Justice indicted him (misspelling his name in its release) on charges of being a felon and “illegally present alien” in possession of a firearm and ammunition. If convicted, he could spend up to 10 years in prison.
Meanwhile, the failure of the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office to secure a conviction has spurred talks of a political shakeup. District Attorney George Gascón was notably absent from the jury verdict reading last week, though he did have two spokespeople present. After articles came out in both the San Francisco Chronicle and the Examiner about how this case could affect his race for re-election in 2019 — against potential candidates Suzy Loftus and Sup. Jane Kim — he called a press conference Tuesday.
As the case is still technically ongoing, Gascón was reluctant to discuss strategic details of why prosecutor Diana Garcia centered her closing arguments on a first-degree murder charge, if his office would have been more successful just trying the case for involuntary manslaughter, and what he thinks swayed the jury’s verdict toward the defense.
But he did acknowledge his absence after the verdict was announced.
“The Steinle family themselves have commented over and over the difficulty of watching their daughter’s death be thrown around to advance political agendas and careers,” he said. “Seeing all this, I was circumspect in talking too much about the case, before, during, or after the trial. I did a handful of interviews last week, but did not feel a press conference was appropriate. I felt the focus should be about the Steinle family and not me or my office.”
In regard to the national #boycottsanfrancisco movement, Gascón stuck by the work his office does every day.
“This is one of the safest cities in the country, regardless of what those hatemongers are saying,” he said. “This is a very safe city. The conviction rate for violent crime is very high.”
But the pressure his office has received, both from conservatives nationally who criticize him for losing the case and locally from progressives who were surprised by the first-degree murder charge, has not gone unnoticed.
“This case has been used as a political stunt,” he said. “It pains me to watch politicians and candidates use the tragedy of this event for political gain.”