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Why the system worked in the Kate Steinle murder trial

"To howl about the verdict without acknowledging that, by all accounts, the system worked, even if not to the favor of many of us, is bad"

Compton Herald | Kate Steinle

“…the bullet that hit Kate Steinle ricocheted off the ground and traveled 80 feet, which was consistent with the defense’s explanation of an accidental, and not intentional, incident”

Compton Herald | Jose Ines Garcia Zarate

Jose Ines Garcia Zarate booking photo. Public domain

The closely watched murder trial of Kate Steinle recently ended with what some would consider a surprising result. The facts are terrible. Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, an undocumented immigrant that had been deported five times, had a gun, and a young woman with her whole life ahead of her ended up shot and killed while walking on San Francisco’s Pier 14 with her dad.

Despite the facts, Garcia Zarate was found not guilty of all charges except for the gun possession charge. The case actually made the term “sanctuary city” a part of the national discourse and therefore the result would be fodder for discussion. President Trump, who used this case’s social implications to bolster his candidacy, called the decision “disgraceful.”

There are reasons for the decision the jury made. One can argue the prosecution was overzealous. First degree murder was an option for the jury but the facts did not call for a 1st degree conviction. Among other things, the bullet that hit Steinle ricocheted off the ground and traveled 80 feet, which was consistent with the defense’s explanation of an accidental, and not intentional, incident. As an attorney, I could easily see the defendant being convicted of something more serious than he was.

Naturally, the verdict would make people angry. It’s okay to be angry, but, it’s not okay to use the verdict as a political and social wedge. One popular chorus is, “this proves why we shouldn’t have sanctuary cities,” even though that term does not have an actual meaning grounded in the law. Further, it is not okay to cast an entire group of people as undesirables because of the actions of one.

We categorize groups of people — racial, political, social — because it makes things more predictable. “We” can see “them” coming, so we can brace ourselves; it makes us feel safe. Sure, it’s tempting and that’s what many people, including the president himself, are doing. And there are plenty of politicians out there willing to take advantage of our intellectual and social laziness. Even the attorney general, who should certainly respect the jury process even if disagreeing with the result, issued a political statement of disapproval of the verdict.

Ann Coulter said that if there was a wall at the Mexican border, this would not have happened. But, the truth is it takes no work or thought to characterize entire groups, or to disregard what seems to have been a thoughtful, if not agreeable, jury deliberation process (24+ hours over 6 days).

My position is not rooted in a lack of sensitivity. My sister was killed violently 20 years ago in an unsolved murder. We don’t know who did it. It never made the newspaper. My mom, dad, and nephew (her only son) are shattered. We may not like how the system came out, but this is our system. It needs improvement in many areas, to be sure, but the system is not “wrong because we do not always get a desired result. Twelve jurors looked at the evidence and came to their decision. They were the 12. They had all of the admissible facts and evidence. Not you or I. We must respect their decision.

To howl about the verdict without acknowledging that, by all accounts, the system worked, even if not to the favor of many of us, is bad. To go on from this moment without acknowledging the use of fear to push us backward as a society, and without fighting against our inclination to be scared, and exclusive, is worse.

VIEW: Undocumented immigrant acquitted in Kate Steinle death

Joe Richardson, Esq. is a native son of South-Central Los Angeles, and an attorney practicing tort, contract, and labor, and employment law in Southern California for more than 15 years. He also teaches and speaks on legal issues.

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