The Kate Steinle verdict will please few, and be manipulated by many
On a summer evening in 2015, Garcia Zarate, a homeless immigrant living in the country illegally, unwrapped a cloth object under a bench on a San Francisco pier. Inside the cloth was a gun that had been stolen days before.
Some moments after Garcia Zarate’s inauspicious discovery, a 32-year-old woman who had been walking along the pier lay dying in her father’s arms. “Help me, dad,” Kathryn Steinle said, in what would be her last words. Garcia Zarate, a Mexican national deported five times, was arrested for her killing, which prosecutors claimed had been intentional. Defense attorneys argued that the fatal bullet, which ricocheted off the pier’s concrete surface before hitting Steinle, had been fired by accident, launched from the barrel of an overly-sensitive weapon.
When Donald Trump was on the campaign trail, he alluded to Steinle in his diatribes against illegal immigration. If Garcia Zarate wasn’t exactly a cartel boss, he did have a lengthy arrest record. “This is an absolutely disgraceful situation and I am the only one that can fix it,” Trump said several days after Steinle’s death. “Nobody else has the guts to even talk about it. That won’t happen if I become president.”
Anyone who showed up to Garcia Zarate’s trial in the San Francisco Hall of Justice, however, would have encountered no philippics about open borders, nor any passionate orations about the Statue of Liberty. Issues of immigration, or Garcia Zarate’s criminal record, were not admissible in Judge Samuel Feng’s courtroom. There was only one question: Did he mean to fire that gun?
I went to trial one day — and promptly fell asleep. The testimony was about trigger pulls. There was also talk of ballistics. It was dull stuff, but inspiring for that exact reason. Whatever verdict the jury ultimately reached, I knew this was how it was supposed to work: a cool competition between facts, not a heated ideological battle.
Garcia Zarate struck me less as a murderer than a wastrel. The jury apparently agreed. After nearly six days of deliberations, Garcia Zarate was acquitted on both murder and manslaughter charges. He will, however, face prison time for felony possession of a weapon. When that sentence is through, he will presumably be deported to Mexico for the sixth time.
Outside the courtroom if not in it, the Garcia Zarate trial was about far more than the culpability of a single man. On trial with him were the “sanctuary” policies of cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles, where local law enforcement are largely hindered from cooperating with federal immigration agents. If such a policy had not been in place, Garcia Zarate would have been turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the spring of 2015. Instead, he was released from a San Francisco jail. Two months later, Steinle was dead.
After the verdict was read, one of Garcia Zarate’s defense attorneys, Francisco Ugarte, deemed it “a day of vindication for the rest of immigrants.” It’s hard to agree, given that immigration wasn’t discussed at the trial. Nor had Garcia Zarate cast himself as a martyr for all those who’d made it through the deserts of Texas and Arizona. He wasn’t a Dreamer, he wasn’t a temporary worker toiling in the fields of South Carolina so that diners in Brooklyn can glory in organic heritage grains. He was his own man, in the most miserable way imaginable.
I asked the White House if President Trump had any comment on the Steinle verdict. Before any reply could come, a tweet materialized on my iPhone screen. “A disgraceful verdict in the Kate Steinle case!” Trump wrote on Twitter. “No wonder the people of our Country are so angry with Illegal Immigration.”