By Alex Dobuzinskis
(Reuters) – An illegal immigrant from Mexico was acquitted of murder and manslaughter by a San Francisco jury on Thursday in the fatal shooting of a woman that Donald Trump used as a rallying cry against “sanctuary cities” during his presidential campaign.
Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, 45, who had been deported to Mexico five times since first entering the United States as a juvenile, was charged in the July 1, 2015, killing of Kate Steinle on a San Francisco pier.
Defense attorneys said Garcia Zarate found the gun and it accidentally discharged, the bullet ricocheting off the ground at the pier frequented by tourists before striking the woman.
Prosecutors had argued Garcia Zarate intentionally fired the gun when he struck Steinle with a bullet.
The jury, while acquitting Garcia Zarate of murder, manslaughter and assault charges, found him guilty of the lesser charge of being a felon in possession of a firearm, said Max Szabo, a spokesman for the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office.
The sentence for that crime in California can range between 16 months and three years in prison.
The case became a lightning rod for Trump and others in the push to halt illegal immigration and penalize so-called sanctuary cities, such as San Francisco, which limit their assistance to federal immigration authorities.
“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.”
Before the shooting, Garcia Zarate, who previously was known as Juan Francisco Lopez Sanchez, was released from a San Francisco jail despite a request by immigration authorities that he be detained for deportation.
Sanctuary supporters say enlisting police in deportation actions undermines community trust in law enforcement, particularly among Latinos.
Jim Steinle, the father of Kate, told the San Francisco Chronicle the family was “saddened and shocked” by the verdict.
“Justice was rendered, but it was not served,” he told the newspaper.
In June, the U.S. House of Representatives passed “Kate’s Law,” named for the 32-year-old Steinle, that would increase penalties for illegal immigrants who return to the United States. The bill has not passed the U.S. Senate.
Since taking office as president in January, Trump and his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, have sought to cut federal funding for sanctuary cities but have suffered setbacks in court.
In a statement after the verdict, Sessions said San Francisco officials’ “decision to protect criminal aliens led to the preventable and heartbreaking death of Kate Steinle.”
He 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.”
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement will deport Garcia Zarate at the conclusion of the criminal case, ICE deputy director Tom Homan said in a statement that also criticized his 2015 release from jail.
A representative for the San Francisco sheriff’s department, which runs the city’s jails, could not be reached for comment late on Thursday.
“There was a tremendous amount of misinformation that was spread about this case from day one,” San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi told reporters outside the courtroom. “You had then-candidate Trump espousing that this was an intentional shooting.”
(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Editing by Peter Cooney and Clarence Fernandez)