The undocumented immigrant who was acquitted by a San Francisco jury of murdering Kate Steinle, and promptly charged by federal prosecutors with two felonies for possessing a gun, is being targeted by a Trump administration that wants to punish the city, his lawyer said Tuesday.
At a hearing in San Francisco, attorney Maria Belyi said her client, Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, would seek to dismiss the federal charges as illegal acts of vindictive prosecution.
“The reason for the prosecution was the verdict and sentence our client received in San Francisco Superior Court,” Belyi told U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria.
Speaking to reporters afterward, she said the Trump administration’s Justice Department was looking “to make an example of our client and example of the city of San Francisco as a sanctuary city.”
“We believe it’s a political motive,” said Belyi, co-counsel in the case with prominent defense attorney Tony Serra.
To prove vindictive prosecution, Garcia Zarate’s lawyers would have to show that the government was retaliating against him for exercising his constitutional rights, such as the right to go to trial before a jury in the San Francisco case.
Steinle, 32, was shot in July 2015 as she walked along Pier 14 with her father. The bullet came from a gun held by Garcia Zarate, who had been deported five times to his native Mexico, returned to the United States each time, and had just served 46 months in federal prison for illegal re-entry.
Rather than deporting him again, immigration officials sent him to San Francisco to face an old marijuana charge, and he was set free after city prosecutors dropped the charge. President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have pointed to his case as evidence of the dangers of illegal immigration and the sanctuary city policies of communities like San Francisco, which restrict cooperation of local police with federal immigration agents.
Garcia Zarate’s lawyers said he had picked up the gun, which someone else had stolen from a federal agent’s car, and it went off accidentally, discharging a bullet that ricocheted off the pavement and struck Steinle. Jurors acquitted him of murder and manslaughter on Nov. 30 and convicted him only of being a felon in possession of a gun.
He was sentenced to three years in prison, a term he had already served while awaiting trial, and then was to be turned over to immigration authorities for deportation. But five days after the verdict, Justice Department prosecutors charged Garcia Zarate with two counts of illegal firearms possession — as a convicted felon and as an illegal immigrant — punishable by up to 10 years in federal prison.
Garcia Zarate’s lawyers have already filed papers seeking to reduce the charges to a single count, arguing that federal prosecutors are seeking to punish him twice for the same conduct. Chhabria scheduled a hearing on that issue for April 24 and will consider the claim of vindictive prosecution at a later hearing.
Garcia Zarate, accompanied by an interpreter, pleaded not guilty to the charges Tuesday and remains in custody.
Bob Egelko is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @BobEgelko