Kate Steinle's death at the hands of a Mexican national became a flashpoint in the immigration debate — here's the story behind her killing

jose ines garcia zarate

  • The unauthorized immigrant who killed Kate Steinle in 2015 was acquitted by a jury on Thursday of murder and manslaughter charges.
  • The verdict sparked outrage among immigration hardliners and critics of so-called “sanctuary cities,” who argued that Steinle’s death could have been prevented if the city of San Francisco had not released Garcia Zarate from jail shortly before the shooting.
  • But the facts of Garcia Zarate’s case are more complicated — San Francisco officials and federal authorities have each blamed the other for Garcia Zarate’s release.

The surprise acquittal of Jose Ines Garcia Zarate in the shooting death of San Francisco woman Kate Steinle set off a firestorm of outrage Thursday night, as top conservatives and critics of so-called “sanctuary cities” pinned blame for Steinle’s death on illegal immigration and insufficiently aggressive deportation policies.

Garcia Zarate, a 45-year-old Mexican national who was homeless and living in the US illegally when he fired the shot that killed Steinle, was acquitted by a jury on murder and manslaughter charges. The jury convicted him of the lesser charge of being a felon in possession of a gun, which carries a maximum sentence of three years in state prison.

Steinle, 32, was fatally shot while she walked along Pier 14 of the San Francisco Bay with her father in July 2015. The bullet that pierced her back had ricocheted off the concrete ground after it was fired by Garcia Zarate from a handgun belonging to a federal ranger that had been stolen four days earlier.

Garcia Zarate’s defense attorneys argued that the shooting was an accident — they said he found the gun wrapped in a T-shirt or cloth under a pier bench and unintentionally discharged it.

Lead attorney Matt Gonzalez has argued that the weapon was a SIG Sauer with a “hair trigger in single-action mode” — a model well-known for accidental discharges even among experienced shooters. Gonzalez told the jury, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, that Garcia Zarate had never handled a firearm before, was frightened by the noise of the gunshot, then flung the weapon into the bay where it was later found by a diver.

Prosecutors, however, alleged that Garcia Zarate brought the weapon to the pier deliberately to do harm, and intentionally aimed and shot Steinle after firmly pulling the trigger. They said Garcia Zarate then threw the weapon into the bay and fled the scene.

San Francisco’s ‘sanctuary’ policies were closely scrutinized after Steinle’s death

jose ines garcia zarate kate stienleBeyond the shooting itself, perhaps the most controversial aspect of Garcia Zarate’s case involves his previous criminal activity and history of deportations, and how San Francisco and federal authorities handled his custody before he ever picked up the gun and shot Steinle.

At the time of Steinle’s death, Garcia Zarate had been convicted of nonviolent drug crimes and deported five times since the early 1990s.

He faced a sixth deportation in 2015, and was in Justice Department (DOJ) custody that March after serving 46 months in prison for a felony re-entry into the US, but instead of transferring him into the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for deportation, the department transferred him to the San Francisco County Jail for prosecution of a 1995 marijuana charge.

San Francisco prosecutors, who had long ago deprioritized marijuana charges, dismissed the decades-old charge and released Garcia Zarate on April 15, 2015. Due to San Francisco’s policy of limiting cooperation with federal immigration authorities — which some refer to as a “sanctuary” policy — the city did not inform ICE when they released Garcia Zarate.

As a result of the case, both the DOJ and the city of San Francisco have changed several policies. The DOJ announced in 2016 it would no longer release potentially deportable detainees to local jails without first allowing ICE to take custody. San Francisco, meanwhile, has adjusted its policy to notify ICE if they are releasing suspected undocumented immigrants who face charges of serious or violent felonies.

“This tragedy could have been prevented if San Francisco had simply turned the alien over to ICE as we requested, instead of releasing him back onto the streets,” ICE Director Thomas Homan said in a statement on Thursday. “It is unconscionable that politicians across this country continue to endanger the lives of Americans with sanctuary policies while ignoring the harm inflicted on their constituents.”

But ICE has faced criticism of its own over not seeking a judicial warrant to legally obtain custody of Garcia Zarate when it discovered he had been transferred into San Francisco’s custody. The agency has argued that obtaining judicial warrants are unnecessary and would place too much burden on ICE officials and federal courts.

Though the agency did issue a request to the city to detain Garcia Zarate until ICE officials could pick him up, their detainer requests are not signed by a judge and are therefore not legally binding. San Francisco’s policy is to ignore such requests if they are not accompanied by judge-signed warrants, and the city has cited federal court cases concluding that such detentions violate inmates’ Fourth Amendment rights.

The right has used Steinle’s death as evidence of the perils of illegal immigration

Kate SteinleGarcia Zarate’s deportation and criminal history made him an effective target for immigration hardliners, who argued that Steinle would still be alive were it not for an insecure border and lenient treatment toward suspected undocumented immigrants in local jails.

President Donald Trump immediately seized on the verdict on Thursday as evidence of the perils of “Illegal Immigration.” Trump frequently villainized Garcia Zarate and cited Steinle’s death during his presidential campaign, using the case to bolster his argument for a border wall and aid his crusade against “sanctuary cities.”

Early on Friday, Trump also falsely claimed on Twitter that Garcia Zarate had previously committed violent crimes and had illegally entered the US six times due to lax border security under the Obama administration.

“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!” Trump tweeted.

In fact, Garcia Zarate had never been convicted of a violent crime before Steinle’s shooting — his previous convictions were for nonviolent drug crimes and illegal entry. Lax border security, too, does not appear to be a factor since Garcia Zarate was caught by border patrol agents each time he entered the country under the Obama administration.

In contrast, Steinle’s family has expressed nuanced views on immigration and “sanctuary” policies. They have both condemned  Trump for “sensationalizing” Steinle’s death to advance anti-immigration policies, and expressed frustration with San Francisco officials, who they believe went too far in refusing to cooperate with federal immigration authorities.

SEE ALSO: The mysterious death of a border patrol agent may have been an accident, Texas sheriff says, not an attack as Trump suggested

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A War Criminal Drank Poison in Court, and Died. How Could This Happen? – New York Times


PARIS — The moment was dramatic enough: In a courtroom in The Hague on Wednesday, a military commander from the former Yugoslavia pulled out a small bottle and drank from it, declaring that he had ingested poison to protest his conviction for war crimes. The judges quickly ordered that courtroom curtains block the view of spectators in the public gallery. Live television coverage went dark.

But what happened next, beyond public view, was just as shocking, according to lawyers and court officials. The war criminal, Slobodan Praljak, 72, slumped in his chair and began to gasp for breath. He was later taken to a Dutch hospital and pronounced dead.

On Friday, Dutch prosecutors announced that Mr. Praljak had died of heart failure after ingesting potassium cyanide — a highly toxic compound — and the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia announced that it would conduct its own “independent, expert review” of Mr. Praljak’s suicide. But a key question remained unanswered: How did he manage to smuggle the poison into court?

Defense lawyers at the tribunal say the security arrangements in place for defendants like Mr. Praljak, and the five other men whose sentences were affirmed on Wednesday, were rigorous. They were subjected to body searches when they left their detention center — inside a high-security Dutch prison — and again when they arrived at the tribunal building. But, lawyers acknowledged, body-cavity searches were not part of the routine.

Even so, that left the question of how Mr. Praljak could have laid hands on the toxin since visitors were supposedly searched, too. And in the months before his final appearance in court, he had seemed to eschew contact with his family and his lawyers.

Nika Pinter, his lead counsel, said in a telephone interview from Zagreb, the Croatian capital, that Mr. Praljak had told his family not to be present at the judgment.

“For 13 years his wife came to visit him in prison every month, the last time I think at the end of October. His stepson and stepdaughter would also visit,” Ms. Pinter said. However, she added, “He forbade his wife to listen to the judgment. And he told her: Don’t come to The Hague.”

Ms. Pinter recalled: “Last weekend I called him and asked him if he would like me to visit him before the judgment. He said: ‘No, don’t come.’ I called again on Tuesday and told him I would come to court early to meet him. He told me: ‘No, don’t come. I’ll see you in the courtroom.’” She said she believed he wanted to spare her from what followed.

“From the start, 13 years ago, he told me he could not bear being called a war criminal,” Ms. Pinter said. “He couldn’t live with the stigma.” But she added: “He never gave a hint that he was planning to end his life.”

Mr. Praljak had been a theater and film director and a writer. He joined the Croatian Army and was named a general when it was formed after the country broke away from Yugoslavia in 1991.

Named commander of the Croatian forces fighting in Bosnia, he was a key figure during the conflict, including the long siege and shelling of the ethnically mixed city of Mostar. At the time, he was the main liaison between political and military leaders in Croatia and the Croatian force fighting in Bosnia.

He surrendered to the tribunal in 2004 and was convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity in 2013. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison, but appealed. (He would have been due for release in 2019, after serving two-thirds of his sentence, including time served.)

The tribunal had just affirmed his verdict and sentence on Wednesday when Mr. Praljak kept standing.

He reached forward to pick up the vial.

“Slobodan Praljak is not a war criminal,” he declared portentously, in Croatian. “I reject your judgment with contempt.”

He then opened his fist, took out the vial, tilted back his head and drank.

“I have taken poison,” Mr. Praljak said. One of his lawyers, Natacha Fauveau Ivanovic, called out to ensure that the presiding judge, Carmel Agius, understood: “Mr. President, our client says he took poison.”

The judges were stunned, but appeared not to have fully grasped what had happened. Judge Agius directed the next defendant to rise, and began reading.

“People did not realize exactly what was going on,” said Michael Karnavas, a veteran defense lawyer representing Jadranko Prlic, one of Mr. Praljak’s co-defendants. “This man was always full of bravado. Prajlak sat down and almost immediately he was gasping for air, struggling to breathe. It was loud. He made sounds like he was choking. I saw him slumped in his chair. Someone shouted for help. The guards came over and got him onto the floor.”

Mr. Karnavas added: “After a few minutes two medics arrived from the medical office in the tribunal. One of the medics calls out: The heart has stopped. They start doing CPR, they are pumping his chest to get his heart going, taking turns with some of the security guards.”

After 20 minutes, an emergency team arrived from a local hospital and took over. They kept him in the building for another 40 minutes or so because they wanted to stabilize him. It was not clear what made the medical team finally decide to take him to the hospital. Croatia’s justice minister has called into question the speed of the responses by security and medical staff.

The tribunal said on Friday that its inquiry would be led by Hassan B. Jallow, the chief justice of Gambia and a former prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

A report on the findings is expected by Dec. 31.

It was unclear to what extent those findings would be open to scrutiny. “The outcome of the review will be made public, subject to due process and confidentiality considerations,” the tribunal said.

To smuggle the vial into the courtroom, Mr. Praljak had to circumvent what were supposed to be tight security arrangements. The defendants are escorted by guards and enter the building through an underground parking lot. They are strip-searched when they leave the detention unit and then again at the court. They are unable to have contact with members of the public.

Visitors also face tough security checks, said Ms. Fauveau Ivanovic, the defense lawyer, first to enter the high-security Dutch prison, and then again at the United Nations detention unit set within the compound.

“Everything — our shoes, our clothes, our bags — everything goes through the X-ray machine,” she said. “We walk through a scanner, like at an airport. We can’t bring in liquids.”

Mr. Karnavas recalled seeing Mr. Praljak just before the fatal court hearing. “I last saw him outside the courtroom that morning as he was coming out of the toilet,” he said. “I thought nothing of it at the time. But I’m thinking about that now.”

Marlise Simons reported from Paris, and Alan Cowell from London. Christopher F. Schuetze contributed reporting from The Hague.


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