Editorial: Steinle case -- A complete miscarriage of justice | News | DanvilleSanRamon.com |


Editorial: Steinle case -- A complete miscarriage of justice

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With the news last week that a U.S. magistrate has dismissed the family's lawsuit against the federal government, the Kate Steinle case continues to be a disheartening display of injustice.

Imagine you're walking along a pier in San Francisco, a bullet comes out of nowhere and someone is killed -- your child, your significant other, your friend or yourself. The story grabs national headlines, even becoming a presidential campaign talking point.

And nothing happens. No one is held accountable, criminally or civilly. No new laws on the books inspired by this preventable tragedy.

Unfortunately, despite all of the cable news spotlight and chatter from politicians, it's looking more and more each day like that will be the outcome here. No true justice for Steinle and her family.

The story is all too familiar in Pleasanton by now. The Amador Valley High alum then living in San Francisco was fatally shot at 32 years old when a bullet struck her in the chest while walking on Pier 14 with her father on July 1, 2015.

The man charged with Steinle's murder was acquitted of all serious charges by a San Francisco jury on Nov. 30, 2017, not guilty findings that sent shockwaves through Pleasanton.

We criticized the verdict with restraint at the time in an Editorial that urged, "Let's channel our frustration" -- hoping Steinle's death and the inhumane verdict could somehow inspire positive change. Oh, were we wrong.

Looking back, three key points seemed to define the criminal investigation:

* The gun was held by Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, a middle-aged, undocumented Mexican immigrant with multiple felony convictions and deportations in his past (and who had been released from San Francisco Jail custody weeks earlier, without jail authorities informing federal immigration officials, under the city's sanctuary policy once local prosecutors opted not to file charges for an outstanding drug warrant).

* The gun was the secondary duty weapon of a U.S. Bureau of Land Management ranger, who placed the firearm in a backpack under the seat of his SUV while in San Francisco with his family. The vehicle was broken into and the gun stolen four days before the shooting (though not by Zarate).

* The fatal bullet actually ricocheted off the ground before striking Steinle in the chest.

After following the case, it's almost impossible to believe Zarate wasn't found guilty and incarcerated for an extended period. First-degree murder seemed like a long shot, but surely second-degree murder was proven, or at the very least manslaughter.

San Francisco prosecutors argued Zarate intentionally fired the gun in his possession, but the jurors instead took to heart the far-fetched story presented by the defense.

The public defender contended Zarate found a bundle of cloth under a bench, picked it up, felt like something was wrapped inside and then suddenly, bang. He then realized it was a gun that fired, so he fled the area and tossed the gun into the Bay.

Even if you believe that's how he obtained the gun, by happenstance in that instant, it was unreasonable to conclude this gun just went off of its own volition, firing toward a crowd while in Zarate's hands but not caused by him. It's also difficult to believe a man with that history of felony convictions wouldn't know a gun as soon as he felt it.

But the prosecution (having no witness to Zarate pulling the trigger) didn't do enough to counteract the tall tale, and the jury bought it.

The jury did find Zarate guilty of being a felon in possession of a firearm, but a California appeals court last summer tossed that verdict because trial Judge James Feng failed to instruct the jurors on "momentary possession" doctrine that could have absolved him.

Make no mistake: The only person who was in the wrong place at the wrong time that day was Kate Steinle.

That's also true of the federal ranger, though some question criticizing him.

Society depends on all gun owners to be responsible with their weapons in the interest of public safety; for law enforcement officers it should be paramount.

Bad things can happen when guns get into the wrong hands.

But on that day in 2015, BLM Ranger John Woychowski tried to casually hide a federal firearm, not in a secured lockbox, but stuffed in a backpack under the seat. A loose backpack in a car attracts criminals in many communities, even Pleasanton, but especially in a big city like San Francisco.

That's not to imply the ranger was in any way criminally responsible for Steinle's death, but his poor decision -- his professional negligence -- directly contributed to it.

Steinle's parents, Jim Steinle and Elizabeth Sullivan, tried to hold the federal government responsible for the ranger's actions. Unfortunately, on Jan. 6, U.S. Magistrate Joseph Spero dismissed their lawsuit, ruling the gun theft was too far away in distance and time for the BLM to be held liable for causing the shooting.

We disagree, and believe the Steinle parents should have had their full day in court.

Of course, we also thought they should have been given the chance to argue their case against the city of San Francisco and former sheriff Ross Mirkarimi over the sanctuary city policy culpability, but Spero tossed that part of the parents' claim back in 2017.

With Steinle's slaying generating so much national attention, there was hope the case would result in legislation to help prevent such tragedies in the future.

Members of both political parties talked the talk, but failed to walk the walk.

The House of Representatives in June 2017 passed "Kate's Law," a Republican bill to increase punishments for criminal offenders who re-enter the country illegally after deportation. It was a largely partisan vote, though 24 Democrats, including local Rep. Eric Swalwell, voted in favor.

But the legislation never advanced out of the Republican-controlled Senate.

Kate's Law seemed like a commonsense bill to us; we're disappointed in never gained traction.

As did a bill reintroduced last July by northern Tri-Valley Congressman Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord), legislation also inspired by Steinle's death to mandate all federal agencies to implement rules to help prevent law enforcement officers' service weapons from being lost or stolen.

DeSaulnier's bill has failed to advance in the Democratic-controlled House.

The lack of legislative action is hard to fathom, especially since now-President Donald Trump invoked Steinle's death and her memory as a rallying cry for his immigration policy and border wall proposals on the campaign trail before his election in November 2016.

It appears those words were little more than a talking point to stoke the fire. When the Republicans pulling the strings really want something done during the Trump era, they find a way.

At least he has talked about the case. Democratic candidates were hardly considering serious policy changes inspired by Steinle in the presidential race four years ago, and it's hard to imagine her name even crossing the minds of any Dems vying in the 2020 campaign (unless you count the three-plus months Swalwell was a declared candidate).

Zarate has been scheduled for a trial in federal court this month on two criminal charges of being an ex-felon and an undocumented immigrant in possession of a gun in relation to the Steinle case. Forgive us if we expect nothing more than time-served or some other slap on the wrist.

Kate Steinle's case is among the most disturbing miscarriages of justice, from top to bottom, for Pleasanton in the nearly two decades that the Weekly has been in publication.

We're sorry, Kate. We're sorry we couldn't do more to help your story effect change. We're sorry your adopted hometown of San Francisco, your state and your country didn't do more for you and your family. Then again, sorry only goes so far.

Editor's note: We would also like to praise the quality reporting provided by Bay City News Service, on which we have relied for many of the out-of-area trial coverage and court updates from this case. Without their strong, continued reporting, this small local newspaper could not have covered the Steinle case as well.

We need your support now more than ever. Can we count on you?


4 people like this
Posted by Sci Geek
a resident of San Ramon
on Jan 16, 2020 at 5:44 pm

Clearly criminal law is not the expertise of this editorial writer and the extrapolation beyond the known facts and evidence to lay blame on an individual does not serve any us well.

The death of Kate Steinle is a tragedy and the lack of a clearly responsible party is frustrating, but the logical flaws abound in this editorial. Criminal cases must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt - not just because we need to blame someone to blame for a tragic death.

First, unless your experience is limited to TV crime shows, there are plenty of felonies that have nothing to do with weapons including drug charges. Having a prior felony history does not automatically convey familiarity with guns. Mr. Zarate's prior felony conviction was for sale and possession of marijuana.

Statistical evidence shows that the crime rate among illegal aliens is lower than among citizens so this fact is also irrelevant. Given the situation, a citizen could've just as easily been the person to pick up this weapon and accidentally discharged it before recognizing what it was.

Whether the process played out as described by Mr. Zarate is something nobody will every know for sure, but the fact that the bullet hit the ground between 12-15 feet away from Mr. Zarate and ricocheted off the pavement traveling another 78 feet before striking Ms. Steinle is strongly suggestive that it was either unintentional or horribly bad aim.

The weapon, a Sig Sauer, was found in single action mode, a relatively less safe condition that is far more prone to accidental discharge.

You did correctly describe the culpability of the BLM ranger who did not properly secure his weapon. He did not intend for anyone to die, but failure to treat his service weapon properly created the conditions for this accident to happen.

Sadly, bad things do sometimes happen to good people. The fact that the law does not allow you to punish an individual for this accident is testament to this sad reality and the value of a criminal justice system administered by your fellow citizens who clearly spent more time review the evidence than you did.

19 people like this
Posted by Ron
a resident of Danville
on Jan 17, 2020 at 7:56 am

It was a total shame, that justice was not served, and a life was lost. The criminal should have been prosecuted at the Federal level, because California has lost Any, and ALL credibility in upholding the law, when it at least comes to the Topic of illegal immigrants and crime.

20 people like this
Posted by Malcolm Hex
a resident of San Ramon
on Jan 17, 2020 at 8:47 am

Uh, oh, Sci Geek is playing Perry Mason. He said:

“...is strongly suggestive that it was either unintentional or horribly bad aim. ”

I just love how people like Geek think. And in his case, he assumes the intent of the defendant, not the actual act itself. He also left out the fact that this case was litigated in San Francisco, and not in a jurisdiction where the defendant would have been found guilty - and should have been found guilty.

Kate Steinle died at the hands of the defendant. Unfortunately, Geek is using the same liberal line that the the gun killed Kate Steinle.

20 people like this
Posted by Nick
a resident of San Ramon
on Jan 17, 2020 at 11:02 am

She did not receive justice, and it's because liberals are more concerned about the "feelings" of criminals then justice for the victims. I'm sick of liberals coddling illegal aliens. It's PATHETIC.

1 person likes this
Posted by Malcolm Hex
a resident of San Ramon
on Jan 18, 2020 at 9:08 am

More liberal policies. Read on.

ICE issues list of ‘fugitive’ illegal immigrants freed by New York City’s sanctuary city policies

Web Link

10 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of San Ramon
on Jan 18, 2020 at 3:45 pm

Kate Steinle's death is a profound tragedy. Clearly she did not receive justice.

Sanctuary city, county, & state laws need to be abolished. Unfortunately the trial was held in ultra liberal San Francisco.

My condolences to Kate's family.

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