The murder suspect Trump invoked to build a wall goes on trial today

Posted at 7:12 PM, Oct 23, 2017
and last updated 2017-10-23 19:12:08-04

Kate Steinle’s killing inspired an immigration bill while President Donald Trump and other Republicans have invoked her name in decrying sanctuary cities and promoting the construction of a border wall.

Now, more than two years after her death, her alleged killer will face a jury.

Opening statements are set to begin Monday in the second-degree murder trial of Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, an undocumented Mexican immigrant accused of repeatedly entering the United States illegally. He was arrested hours after Steinle was fatally shot while walking with her dad in July 2015 on a San Francisco pier. The bullet hit her in the back and pierced her aorta.

Garcia Zarate has used the alias Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, and CNN has previously identified him by that name.

His trial has been delayed a number of times since his arrest. He pleaded not guilty during his arraignment.

The case has stirred controversy over immigration policy because of two key details:

Garcia Zarate was a convicted felon who’d been deported from the United States five times. Also, before the shooting, officials in San Francisco, a so-called sanctuary city, had released him instead of turning him over to federal authorities.

The Garcia Zarate case has become a rallying cry for Trump and others. But his attorney told CNN earlier this year that the killing was accidental.

“There’s substantial evidence that it’s a complete accident,” Matt Gonzalez said. “From our point of view, the bullet ricocheted off the ground.”

In a July op-ed, Gonzalez said his client found the gun wrapped in a T-shirt and it accidentally discharged in his hands, the bullet ricocheting off the pier near where Garcia Zarate was sitting. The gun was a Sig Sauer .40-caliber, which Gonzalez claims in the editorial is “known for having a hair trigger,” and belonged to a Bureau of Land Management official who had it stolen out of his car, the attorney said.

Saying his client’s case was being used to “whip up fear of immigrants,” Gonzalez further added that Garcia Zarate had never been charged with a violent crime and was in San Francisco only because federal authorities had transported him there to face a 20-year-old marijuana charge that was promptly dismissed.

“He is a simple man with a second-grade education,” Gonzalez wrote. “He came to the U.S. repeatedly because extreme poverty is the norm in many parts of Mexico. He risked going to jail so that he could perform a menial job that could feed him. Each time, he came to the U.S. because American employers openly encourage illegal immigration to fill the jobs U.S. citizens don’t want.”

Prosecutors have painted Garcia Zarate as a danger to the public, arguing that he pointed the gun at Steinle and deliberately pulled the trigger.

“This was an act of random violence,” Assistant District Attorney Diana Garcia said in 2015. “And the defendant claimed to have found this gun shortly before just firing it at somebody at close range, shooting an innocent victim in the back.”

Steinle’s name echoed in the halls of Congress this summer as the House of Representatives passed “Kate’s Law,” a measure named for her. The Senate has yet to pass the measure, which would increase maximum prison penalties for immigrants caught repeatedly entering the United States illegally.

But the slain 32-year-old’s family has balked at her case becoming a symbol of Republicans’ immigration agenda.

Her father told the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this year that the family supports the measure on the chance that it could save one life, but he wishes his daughter’s name wasn’t part of a political controversy.

“I don’t know who coined ‘Kate’s Law,'” Jim Steinle told the Chronicle. “It certainly wasn’t us.”

The family filed a lawsuit in 2016 alleging that San Francisco and its former sheriff were partly to blame for Steinle’s death because officials never notified Immigration and Customs Enforcement when Garcia Zarate was released from a local jail in April 2015. City officials have said they’re not liable for a former inmate’s actions. A federal judge dismissed the family’s claims against San Francisco and former Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi earlier this year.

The Trump administration and supportive Republicans have made Steinle’s death, along with other crimes allegedly committed by undocumented immigrants, a central focus of their immigration strategy.

Steinle’s death is mentioned in virtually every conversation lawmakers have about sanctuary cities, a catch-all term for jurisdictions that do not cooperate in some capacity with federal immigration enforcement. Attorney General Jeff Sessions mentioned her killing in July during a speech on sanctuary cities in Las Vegas, calling it a prime example of why hardline immigration policies are needed.

“Her death was preventable — and it should have been prevented,” Sessions said. “She would still be alive today if her killer had been imprisoned or deported as he should have been.”

Critics of the bill say Kate’s Law would aggressively criminalize undocumented immigrants whose illegal presence in the country carries only civil, not criminal, penalties. They also accuse the administration of unfairly and inaccurately portraying immigrants as criminals. Defenders of the bill say any crime committed by an undocumented immigrant is a crime that could have been prevented.