The illegal Mexican immigrant who was acquitted in the 2015 shooting of 32-year-old Kate Steinle on a San Francisco pier, after having been deported five times, has pleaded guilty in federal court to possessing the gun that killed her, in a case that outraged the nation.
Jose Inez Garcia-Zarate, 51, a Mexican national, pleaded guilty on Monday to being a felon in possession of a firearm and being in the United States illegally while in possession of a firearm. He faces up to 10 years in prison per count, plus three years of supervised release. He’s currently detained in federal custody in California.
Garcia-Zarate’s guilty plea comes seven years after he fatally shot Steinle in the back as she walked along Pier 40 with her father and a family friend in 2015. He had claimed the shooting was accidental and that he was handling a handgun he found wrapped in a T-shirt under a bench on the pier when it accidentally fired.
Garcia-Zarate said he unwittingly picked up the gun wrapped in a T-shirt, and it fired accidentally, striking Steinle in her back and killing her. Her father later recounted her last words were ‘Help me, Dad.’
At that time, Garcia-Zarate had already been deported from the U.S. five times to Mexico and had just finished serving a nearly four-year federal prison sentence for illegal re-entry.
He was also homeless at the time of the killing, after being released in 2015 by San Francisco when local authorities decided not to pursue a decades-old marijuana charge.
He was released under San Francisco’s so-called sanctuary city policy that barred local law enforcement officials from cooperating with most federal immigration investigations.
Garcia-Zarate was acquitted of murder by a San Francisco Superior Court jury in late 2017. But shortly after his acquittal, state and federal prosecutors charged him with two counts of illegal gun possession.
He was convicted in state court on a single gun possession charge, but it was overturned in 2019. Meanwhile, the gun possession charges were still pending in federal court.
A California state Court of Appeals overturned Garcia-Zarate’s conviction in August 2019 based on the failure of the state trial court to instruct the jury on the state’s affirmative defense of momentary possession, according to a news release from the U.S. Department of Justice.
The ruling had no legal effect on the federal prosecution, which had already been initiated.
The federal gun charges had been pending since 2017 after U.S. District Court Judge Vince Chhabria raised concerns about Garcia-Zarate’s mental capacities.
Two doctors diagnosed Garcia-Zarate with schizophrenia and found him unfit to stand trial because he couldn’t follow the court proceedings.
In January 2019, Chhabria said Garcia-Zarate had previously been diagnosed with schizophrenia during a 2009 criminal proceeding in Texas and was prosecuted only after receiving medical treatment.
He also said Garcia-Zarate was given medication while he was held at the Glenn Dyer Jail in Oakland, but the treatment was ‘inexplicably terminated’ when he was transferred to the Santa Rita Jail.
One of the doctors reported to the court last month that Garcia-Zarate was competent to stand trial after regularly taking his medication.
On Monday, Chhabria asked Garcia-Zarate to summarize the charges against him as a way to confirm his competency.
‘The charges are because I was in the country illegally and I had a firearm,’ Garcia Zarate said in Spanish through a court interpreter.
Garcia-Zarate is scheduled to be sentenced on June 6.