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JOSE INEZ GARCIA-ZARATE, a Mexican national who killed tourist Kate Steinle on Pier 14 in San Francisco in 2015, was sentenced to time served on Monday, but that will not end his long journey through the American legal system.
Citing Garcia-Zarate’s history of mental illness and the harsh conditions of his confinement, U.S. District Court Judge Vince Chhabria found that seven years in state and federal incarceration was enough punishment for the two federal weapons offenses to which Garcia-Zarate pleaded guilty in March.
Chhabria’s sentence, however, does not resolve charges that Garcia-Zarate must face in federal court in Western Texas for violating the terms of his supervised release after conviction for illegal re-entry to the United States after deportation.
Attorneys for Garcia-Zarate had hoped that some of the time served in San Francisco might be available to apply against time to be served in that proceeding, but that appears to be in jeopardy in light of Chhabria’s ruling.
In any event, when the West Texas time is served, Garcia-Zarate will be deported back to Mexico.
Willful act or tragic accident
Garcia-Zarate’s case has had plenty of twists and turns already.
As widely reported, on July 1, 2015, Garcia-Zarate found a stolen semi-automatic weapon wrapped in a bundle of rags by the chair where he was sitting on Pier 14.
Steinle and her father, in San Francisco as tourists, walked past Garcia-Zarate. By the time she was 90 feet down the pier, a shot was fired from the weapon he was holding, striking her in the back and killing her.
There were sharply divergent views of how the shooting happened. According to Garcia-Zarate’s counsel, the gun discharged accidentally and Steinle’s death was a tragic accident.
Prosecutors did not agree and they charged Garcia-Zarate with first- and second-degree murder, manslaughter, assault with a semi-automatic weapon and a lesser weapons offense.
Garcia-Zarate had been deported five times before the killing, and his case attracted national attention after Donald Trump used it to support his 2016 presidential campaign positions around immigration and the border wall.
Garcia-Zarate was first tried in a state court proceeding initiated by San Francisco’s district attorney.
On Nov. 30, 2017, Garcia-Zarate was acquitted on the homicide, manslaughter and assault charges, but convicted on the lesser offense of being a felon in possession of a firearm.
He was then indicted by a federal grand jury in December 2017 on federal weapons charges.
On appeal from the state law conviction, the state court of appeals reversed the conviction altogether.
The federal proceedings on the weapons charges were not affected by the state court ruling and they went forward upon Garcia-Zarate’s release from state court custody.
However, in 2020, on the eve of trial in federal court, Chhabria ordered that Garcia-Zarate be evaluated to determine whether he was “suffering from a mental disease or defect rendering him mentally incompetent to the extent that he is unable to understand the nature and consequences of the proceedings against him or to assist properly in his defense.”
Not fit to stand trial
On Oct. 19, 2020, following an evaluation by court-appointed psychiatrists, the judge determined Garcia-Zarate was not competent to stand trial.
The doctors testified that Garcia-Zarate had schizophrenia. The judge said that based on his own observation, “Garcia-Zarate’s speech and responses to questions were frequently off-topic or nonsensical, and he demonstrated no understanding of the charges against him.”
The judge noted that Garcia-Zarate had indicated that he wanted to plead guilty but the judge also found that he was not competent to make that decision “because he lacks sufficient mental capacity to waive his constitutional rights, make a reasoned choice among alternatives, and understand the nature and consequences of a guilty plea.”
The judge said that the doctors believed there was a possibility that Garcia-Zarate could improve if he was treated with antipsychotic medication. He then ordered that Garcia-Zarate receive that treatment.
In June 2021, the Bureau of Prisons informed the judge that “it had restored the defendant to competency.” However, on re-arraignment in August 2021, the judge ordered a new competency evaluation because of new concerns about whether Garcia-Zarate was competent and also whether or not he was taking his medication.
On Feb. 16 of this year, the judge reported that after being restored to competency at the Bureau of Prisons facility, Garcia-Zarate had been transferred to Santa Rita Jail to be held pending trial. However, Garcia-Zarate was not given his medication at that facility and was subsequently determined by the doctors to no longer be competent.
Garcia-Zarate was then moved to Marin County Jail where he received his meds and was again restored to competency.
Guilty plea and time served
In March, Chhabria held a hearing to consider Garcia-Zarate’s stated desire to change his plea. At the hearing, Garcia-Zarate pleaded guilty to the two weapons counts, leading to the sentencing Monday.
The federal sentencing guidelines suggested a sentence of 41-51 months, far less than the seven years that Garcia-Zarate had already spent in state and federal confinement. However, the probation report recommended 120 months, a so-called “upward departure” from the guidelines.
Attorneys for Garcia-Zarate argued, among other things, that the defendant was in an unstable condition when the killing occurred. After the shooting he was found “casually walking around and looking through garbage bins.”
According to the attorneys, Garcia-Zarate “was malnourished, wearing two extremely oversized pairs of jeans held on by a single shoelace, a pair of oversized shoes, one sock, an extremely oversized jacket, a hooded sweatshirt, and a t-shirt. The only other item he had on him, or anywhere else, was a small blue fragment of a broken lighter in his pocket.”
Chhabria sentenced Garcia-Zarate to a term of time served followed by a three-year period of supervised release.
Proceedings in federal court in West Texas and eventual deportation are expected to follow.