Opening statements underway in Kate Steinle murder case in San Francisco

SAN FRANCISCO -- The trial of a man charged with the fatal shooting of Pleasanton native Kate Steinle on San Francisco's Pier 14 will come down to the question of whether he pulled the trigger on purpose and what he was aiming at rather than his immigration status.

TIMELINE: How the Kate Steinle case unfolded
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The trial begins in the case that ignited a national debate on sanctuary cities and illegal immigration.

Opening statements began this morning in the trial of Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, 54, who is charged with second-degree murder in the July 1, 2015, shooting of Steinle.

The trial has drawn national attention because of its ties to the controversy over Sanctuary City policies used by San Francisco and other cities that limit the cooperation of local law enforcement with federal immigration authorities.

Months before the shooting San Francisco officials had released Garcia Zarate, an undocumented immigrant, from jail after a minor drug charge was dismissed without notifying federal immigration authorities, as is the city's practice for most cases.

However, Assistant District Attorney Diana Garcia did not mention Garcia Zarate's immigration status this morning, focusing instead on rebutting the expected defense claim that the shooting was accidental.

Steinle, a 32-year-old who lived in San Francisco's South Beach neighborhood and worked at Medtronic, was walking on the pier with her father and a family friend around 6:23 p.m. after a meal at the nearby Ferry Building when she was struck in the back by a single bullet and killed.

Garcia Zarate was arrested within roughly an hour of the shooting about a mile away after witnesses saw him fleeing the area. The gun used in the shooting was later recovered from the water where he allegedly threw it after Steinle was struck.

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The gun had been stolen from the car of an off-duty Bureau of Land Management agent days earlier, although no evidence directly links Garcia Zarate to the theft.

Defense attorneys have noted that the bullet ricocheted off the ground a few feet in front of Garcia Zarate before it hit Steinle and have suggested that the gun went off in his hand after he found it hidden on the pier.

However, Garcia went to great lengths this morning to persuade jurors that the gun, a .40-caliber Sig Sauer the agent used as a secondary duty weapon, was in good condition and is designed to be difficult to fire accidentally.

"It's a very reliable, high-quality gun," Garcia told jurors, brandishing the actual weapon used in the shooting. "It's not the kind of gun that's going to go off by accident."

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"He knew he had a gun, he meant to conceal it, he meant to shoot people on Pier 14 and he ended up killing Kate Steinle," Garcia said.

Garcia argued that the ricochet could have occurred because Garcia Zarate was aiming at Steinle or other people in the area but fired before the barrel was all the way up and in position.

Garcia Zarate confessed to the shooting in an interview with police but gave statements that in some cases conflict with the available evidence, such as misstating the distance between himself and Steinle and saying he walked past her when he didn't.

No possible motive has been suggested for the shooting, and Garcia Zarate himself told police he was aiming at a seal.

Prosecutors plan to show surveillance video footage during the trial that shows the shooting, but only from a distance of around 800 feet.

Defense attorneys are expected to give their opening statements this afternoon.

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