An undocumented immigrant accused of fatally shooting Pleasanton native Kate Steinle at a San Francisco pier last week pleaded not guilty Tuesday to murder with malice aforethought, with his defense attorney arguing that the shooting was likely accidental.
Matt Gonzalez, the chief attorney at the San Francisco Public Defender's Office, said at Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez's arraignment Tuesday afternoon that the July 1 death of 32-year-old Steinle, a San Francisco resident, was tragic but that "very likely this was an accidental shooting."
However, Assistant District Attorney Diana Garcia told Judge Daniel Flores that the suspect allegedly shot an innocent victim in the back at close range.
Lopez-Sanchez, an undocumented immigrant who is roughly 45 years old and who has been deported from the United States on multiple occasions for various felonies, was speaking to the court through a Spanish interpreter Tuesday.
Twice during his arraignment Lopez-Sanchez told the judge in English, "I'm not guilty," although the judge had already heard his plea and was asking him an unrelated question regarding scheduling.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials took custody of Lopez-Sanchez in March, when he was remanded to the agency after serving a multi-year federal prison sentence for felony re-entry following deportation, ICE spokesperson Gillian Christensen said in a statement.
ICE turned Sanchez over to San Francisco police on March 26 on an outstanding drug warrant, Christensen said.
San Francisco Assistant District Attorney Alex Bastian said the outstanding $5,000 warrant was for selling $20 worth of marijuana at United Nations Plaza back in 1995.
On March 27, a San Francisco Superior Court judge dismissed the drug charges against Lopez-Sanchez.
ICE requested he be returned to their custody upon his release, but the San Francisco Sheriff's Department did not honor that request, according to Christensen.
San Francisco has a "sanctuary city" policy that prohibits law enforcement officials from detaining an individual on the basis of an immigration detainer when they would otherwise be eligible for release from custody.
Christensen said Sanchez had been deported five times, most recently in 2009. His criminal history includes seven prior felonies, including four involving narcotics, Christensen said.
Gonzalez, however, told the judge Tuesday that Lopez-Sanchez had no convictions for violent offenses.
Bail for Lopez-Sanchez was set at $5 million and he was ordered to appear in court for a pre-hearing conference on July 27.