San Francisco, CA - A California appeals court has cleared Kate Steinle's killer of the only charge he was convicted of.
Jose Ines Garcia Zarate was sentenced in January 2018 for being a felon in possession of a firearm, the only charge that he was convicted of after he used a stolen gun to fatally shoot Kate Steinle.
The judge sentenced him to time served, which means that the judge already credited him with having served enough jail time pre-sentencing, according to KCBS.
There were essentially no consequences for his sole criminal conviction.
Despite the minor sentence, Garcia Zarate's attorneys claimed that he never actually possessed the weapon in a legal sense when he fired it then threw it in the ocean, according to San Francisco Chronicle.
The 1st District Court of Appeals ruled Friday that the conviction should be overturned because the judge did not give the jury proper instructions on the possession charge, according to NPR.
"It is undisputed that defendant was holding the gun when it fired. But that fact alone does not establish he possessed the gun for more than a moment. To possess the gun, defendant had to know he was holding it," the court ruled as it overturned the conviction.
The request reflected the opinion of at least one juror on the Steinle case who spoke out afterwards.
A member of the jury that acquitted Kate Steinle’s murderer in November 2017 said he felt the 2015 shooting was just “a freak accident.”
The unnamed juror said he decided to speak out after he witnessed backlash from critics who used Steinle’s death as an example of why tougher immigration policies are warranted, KNTV reported.
“If I was not a juror on this trial, I would probably think the same way: ‘Why did you let him go free?’” the juror said.
“But again, the reason is, they could not prove to us that he intentionally killed her. And through all the evidence, I really think that it was a freak accident,” he said.
Steinle, 32, was fatally shot in the back in July of 2015 as she walked down Pier 14 in San Francisco with her father.
The .40 caliber bullet ripped through her abdominal aorta.
Garcia Zarate is an illegal alien who had been deported five times prior to shooting Steinle.
A jury found Jose Ines Garcia Zarate guilty of one count of felony possession of a firearm, but acquitted him for the murder or involuntary manslaughter of Steinle, even though he admitted to firing the fatal shot.
The verdict infuriated many people who believed it was a clear-cut murder case.
But the juror told KNTV that the jury quickly disregarded the options of first and second degree murder, and instead deliberated over the manslaughter charge.
The problem, he said, centered on the word “brandishing,” and whether or not Garcia Zarate displayed the weapon in an aggressive manner.
Although Garcia Zarate fired the gun and killed Steinle, the juror claimed that the prosecution did not prove that Garcia Zarate was threatening anyone with a gun.
“During the trial they could not prove that," he said. "All the videos we saw never, not even one video showed that he was pointing the gun at her. So I think it was very weak."
Prosecutors said that Garcia Zarate was playing his own "secret version of Russian roulette" as he deliberately fired into a crowd with a stolen firearm.
Garcia Zarate admitted to police that he had fired the gun, but claimed that he was aiming at a seal.
In different accounts, he also claimed that he had found the gun wrapped up in a cloth and that it accidentally discharged as he unwrapped it.
Garcia Zarate also admitted to tossing the gun in the bay after the shooting, but said he had thrown it away “to stop it from continuing to shoot," his defense attorneys said - as if guns are capable of firing on their own.
The juror said he actually found the “gun wrapped in a rag” excuse to be plausible.
“I truly believe him,” he told KNTV.
However, the double-action trigger on the Sig Sauer P239 pistol requires a significant amount of force to fire, and accidentally brushing the trigger is unlikely to cause any movement on the trigger.
The juror said the jury also initially struggled to convict Garcia Zarate on the weapon possession charge.
“I was kind of in doubt,” the juror said. “What do they mean by possession? Means like you had the thing for a long time? If you touch it?"
The jury eventually convicted Garcia Zarate on the single count, and the juror said he has no regrets about letting Steinle’s killer off on the murder charges.
"I am comfortable with my decision," the juror said. "I can put my head on a pillow and sleep well thinking that I made the right decision."
Although the juror did not comment on the tragic loss of Steinle, or the toll the trial likely took on Steinle’s friends and family, he complained about the hardships he suffered as a juror.
"It was very hard on me," he told KNTV. "When we finished the trial, I left the court, walking to my car, I was in tears. Because I felt the pressure coming off my back. Because I could talk to people then. I was in tears."
It's not clear if any of the jurors had ever seen a gun before.
Garcia Zarate's attorneys claimed Judge Samuel Feng failed to explain to the jury that momentary possession of a weapon is not necessarily a crime if a person only seeks to dispose of it and does not intend to keep law enforcement from seizing it.
“The court has misdirected the jury in a matter of law,” wrote Matt Gonzalez, lead defense attorney.
After his acquittal, a federal grand jury indicted Garcia Zarate on charges of being a felon in possession of a firearm and ammunition, and of being an undocumented immigrant in possession of a gun and ammunition. He remains in federal custody, and if convicted on federal charges, he faces up to 10 years in federal prison before his potential sixth deportation.
The federal warrant stated that Garcia Zarate violated his supervised release on a federal sentence for illegally re-entering the United States by possessing the gun that killed Kate Steinle on July 1, 2015.
On May 12, 2011, Garcia Zarate was sentenced to 46 months in prison, followed by three years of supervised release, for illegally re-entering the United States, according to CBS News.
President Trump called Garcia Zarate's acquittal for Steinle's murder a "complete travesty of justice," and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions demanded cities like San Francisco scrap immigration policies barring cooperation with federal agents.
Despite the outrage over Garcia Zarate's acquittal, San Francisco city officials vowed to stand by their sanctuary city policies.
Those policies had allowed Garcia Zarate to be released from jail prior to Steinle's murder despite a federal request to detain him for deportation issued several weeks earlier.