(CNN) — A murder defendant intentionally fired at a crowd on a San Francisco pier, killing a woman who was strolling on the waterfront, a prosecutor said Monday in opening statements in a slaying that inspired a Republican immigration bill.
Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, an undocumented Mexican immigrant accused of repeatedly entering the United States illegally, is charged with second-degree murder. Prosecutors said he fatally shot Kate Steinle with a Sig Sauer .40-caliber handgun in July 2015 on a popular San Francisco pier. The bullet hit Steinle, 32, in the back and pierced a major artery.
“She’s dead because this man pointed this gun in her direction and pulled the trigger,” Assistant District Attorney Diana Garcia told a jury. “He meant to kill Kate Steinle.”
But Garcia Zarate’s attorney argued his client accidentally fired the weapon he stumbled upon at the pier. The shooting was caused by a “freakish ricochet,” defense attorney Matt Gonzalez said.
“The gun was pointed at the ground when it discharged,” Gonzalez said. “Had it been a public park, the bullet would have been embedded in the soil.”
There has “never been a ricochet charge in history,” Gonzalez added.
Garcia Zarate, who has pleaded not guilty, has used the alias Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, and CNN has previously identified him by that name.
The case has stirred controversy over immigration policy. 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 immigration authorities.
The Garcia Zarate case has also become a rallying cry for President Donald Trump and others, who have invoked Steinle’s name in decrying sanctuary cities and promoting the construction of a border wall.
This summer as the House of Representatives passed “Kate’s Law,” a measure named for the victim. The Senate has yet to pass the measure, which would increase maximum prison penalties for immigrants caught repeatedly entering the United States illegally.
Prosecution: ‘Kate fell and her dad fell’
Opening statements Monday focused mostly on the killing.
Steinle’s father, James, his daughter and a friend were “just strolling like regular tourists” on that July evening, around 6:23 p.m., the prosecutor said.
Garcia Zarate was seated when the three passed him, prosecutor Garcia said. Steinle took a selfie right before shots rang out about seven minutes after the group met up at the pier, the prosecutor said.
“Kate fell and her dad fell with her,” the prosecutor told the jury.
Two women in a hotel across the street heard the gunshot and saw a man, who was “the only one rushing the off the pier,” according to Garcia.
Surveillance video captured Garcia-Zarate running away, the prosecutor said. Another witness heard “a loud plop,” the sound of the gun hitting the water, according to proseuctor Garcia.
“You’ll see a splash in the water when the defendant throws the gun,” Garcia said of the surveillance, adding that a police dive team recovered the weapon.
Garcia Zarate, who was arrested a mile away, eventually “admitted to deliberately firing the gun,” after an interrogation that lasted more than four hours, the prosecutor said.
Investigators found gunshot residue on his right hand, according to Garcia.
The prosecutor said the Sig Sauer is “not the kind of gun to go off by accident.”
Defense: Gun accidentally discharged
Authorities said the gun used in the shooting had been stolen from the car of an off-duty Bureau of Land management agent.
Defense attorney Gonzalez argued that Garcia Zarate accidentally discharged the weapon when when he unwrapped it.
The gun’s “trigger pull is fairly light. It could accidentally discharge,” Gonzalez said.
The defense attorney said an accidental discharge is “not a shock to people who know this gun.”
“An accident doesn’t become something other than an accident because we don’t like the results from it,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez said Garcia Zarate has only a second-grade education, and he first came to the United States as a 14-year-old. The defense attorney argued that his client’s nationality and background may have played a role in his prosecution.
“If this was a college student or Swedish kid would he be charged with murder?” Gonzalez said.