S.F.’s Public Defender Made a Documentary about the Kate Steinle Trial

The new film offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the strategies behind the defense of Garcia Zarate, and the national attention the case drew.

SF Public Defender Jeff Adachi during the reading of the trial verdict of the killing of Kate Steinle at the Hall of Justice, Nov. 30, 2017. (Jessica Christian)

It’s been almost a year since a San Francisco jury reached a verdict in the trial of Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, the homeless, undocumented immigrant man accused of killing Kathryn Steinle on Pier 14 in 2015. The weeks-long court case, colloquially nicknamed “the Kate Steinle trial,” drew so much media that a lottery system was used to snag the limited seating in the courtroom (and other gruesome murder trials were subsequently ignored). Steinle’s death became one of President Donald Trump’s favorite talking points to justify why San Francisco’s Sanctuary City policy was flawed, and during those few weeks in October and November 2017, the whole nation was watching the trial. 

Although Garcia Zarate was given time-served for the single convicted count of being a felon in possession of a firearm, he was immediately transferred to federal custody, where he awaits charges filed by former-Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The case it out of San Francisco’s —and Public Defender Jeff Adachi’s — hands. But it’s not been forgotten. Six months ago, Adachi quietly launched an IndieGoGo for a documentary film based on Garcia Zarate’s trial, titled Ricochet. 

Adachi isn’t new to filmmaking; outside of his day job as the city’s Public Defender he’s had a fairly successful career as an indie documentary director. He made Slanted Screen to address the terrible representation of Asian men onscreen, and Defender, a documentary about the trial of 22-year-old Michael Smith, which also explores the obvious biases that further criminalize Black defendants. 

So it’s not totally out of the blue that Adachi hopped on the task of telling Garcia Zarate’s story. In the sample reel for the film, co-counsel Matt Gonzalez and Francisco Ugarte are followed through the media scrum to court, and in and out of conference rooms where they discuss the trial. We meet the investigators who studied the bullet’s trajectory, and get a look at the way both local and national media covered the case. 

As someone who was there during the trial, the reel is almost dully familiar in its presentation. The journalists are all recognizable from our endless days of lining up to go through security, and the chaotic every-man-for-themselves rush that ensued every time anyone gave a statement outside court. I remember many of the press conferences depicted in the trailer, where I crouched underneath the legs of TV camera tripods for endless minutes recording Adachi’s speeches. It’s no wonder that Adachi’s film crew went unnoticed; on any given day of the trial at least two dozen journalists milled around the corridor. The fluorescent lighting of the dingy Hall of Justice adds no glamor to the scene, and the main cast — Ugarte and Gonzalez — could easily come off as underwhelming characters without the privilege of witnessing them brilliantly argue the case in court (where no cameras were allowed).

But for those who weren’t there, this a rare chance to get a real look at what those weeks were like. The boredom, the chaos, the stress, the waiting, and above all of it, the weight of Trump looking over our shoulder.

Ricochet will be screened for the public on Nov. 18, at 12:30 p.m. in the San Francisco Unitarian Universalists Society at 1187 Franklin St. Admission is $10. 

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