Editorial: Steinle case -- A complete miscarriage of justice | News | PleasantonWeekly.com |


Editorial: Steinle case -- A complete miscarriage of justice

And there's plenty of blame to go around, from top to bottom

With the news last week that a U.S. magistrate has dismissed the family's lawsuit against the federal government, the Kate Steinle case continues to be a disheartening display of injustice.

Imagine you're walking along a pier in San Francisco, a bullet comes out of nowhere and someone is killed -- your child, your significant other, your friend or yourself. The story grabs national headlines, even becoming a presidential campaign talking point.

And nothing happens. No one is held accountable, criminally or civilly. No new laws on the books inspired by this preventable tragedy.

Unfortunately, despite all of the cable news spotlight and chatter from politicians, it's looking more and more each day like that will be the outcome here. No true justice for Steinle and her family.

The story is all too familiar in Pleasanton by now. The Amador Valley High alum then living in San Francisco was fatally shot at 32 years old when a bullet struck her in the chest while walking on Pier 14 with her father on July 1, 2015.

The man charged with Steinle's murder was acquitted of all serious charges by a San Francisco jury on Nov. 30, 2017, not guilty findings that sent shockwaves through Pleasanton.

We criticized the verdict with restraint at the time in an Editorial that urged, "Let's channel our frustration" -- hoping Steinle's death and the inhumane verdict could somehow inspire positive change. Oh, were we wrong.

Looking back, three key points seemed to define the criminal investigation:

* The gun was held by Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, a middle-aged, undocumented Mexican immigrant with multiple felony convictions and deportations in his past (and who had been released from San Francisco Jail custody weeks earlier, without jail authorities informing federal immigration officials, under the city's sanctuary policy once local prosecutors opted not to file charges for an outstanding drug warrant).

* The gun was the secondary duty weapon of a U.S. Bureau of Land Management ranger, who placed the firearm in a backpack under the seat of his SUV while in San Francisco with his family. The vehicle was broken into and the gun stolen four days before the shooting (though not by Zarate).

* The fatal bullet actually ricocheted off the ground before striking Steinle in the chest.

After following the case, it's almost impossible to believe Zarate wasn't found guilty and incarcerated for an extended period. First-degree murder seemed like a long shot, but surely second-degree murder was proven, or at the very least manslaughter.

San Francisco prosecutors argued Zarate intentionally fired the gun in his possession, but the jurors instead took to heart the far-fetched story presented by the defense.

The public defender contended Zarate found a bundle of cloth under a bench, picked it up, felt like something was wrapped inside and then suddenly, bang. He then realized it was a gun that fired, so he fled the area and tossed the gun into the Bay.

Even if you believe that's how he obtained the gun, by happenstance in that instant, it was unreasonable to conclude this gun just went off of its own volition, firing toward a crowd while in Zarate's hands but not caused by him. It's also difficult to believe a man with that history of felony convictions wouldn't know a gun as soon as he felt it.

But the prosecution (having no witness to Zarate pulling the trigger) didn't do enough to counteract the tall tale, and the jury bought it.

The jury did find Zarate guilty of being a felon in possession of a firearm, but a California appeals court last summer tossed that verdict because trial Judge James Feng failed to instruct the jurors on "momentary possession" doctrine that could have absolved him.

Make no mistake: The only person who was in the wrong place at the wrong time that day was Kate Steinle.

That's also true of the federal ranger, though some question criticizing him.

Society depends on all gun owners to be responsible with their weapons in the interest of public safety; for law enforcement officers it should be paramount.

Bad things can happen when guns get into the wrong hands.

But on that day in 2015, BLM Ranger John Woychowski tried to casually hide a federal firearm, not in a secured lockbox, but stuffed in a backpack under the seat. A loose backpack in a car attracts criminals in many communities, even Pleasanton, but especially in a big city like San Francisco.

That's not to imply the ranger was in any way criminally responsible for Steinle's death, but his poor decision -- his professional negligence -- directly contributed to it.

Steinle's parents, Jim Steinle and Elizabeth Sullivan, tried to hold the federal government responsible for the ranger's actions. Unfortunately, on Jan. 6, U.S. Magistrate Joseph Spero dismissed their lawsuit, ruling the gun theft was too far away in distance and time for the BLM to be held liable for causing the shooting.

We disagree, and believe the Steinle parents should have had their full day in court.

Of course, we also thought they should have been given the chance to argue their case against the city of San Francisco and former sheriff Ross Mirkarimi over the sanctuary city policy culpability, but Spero tossed that part of the parents' claim back in 2017.

With Steinle's slaying generating so much national attention, there was hope the case would result in legislation to help prevent such tragedies in the future.

Members of both political parties talked the talk, but failed to walk the walk.

The House of Representatives in June 2017 passed "Kate's Law," a Republican bill to increase punishments for criminal offenders who re-enter the country illegally after deportation. It was a largely partisan vote, though 24 Democrats, including local Rep. Eric Swalwell, voted in favor.

But the legislation never advanced out of the Republican-controlled Senate.

Kate's Law seemed like a commonsense bill to us; we're disappointed in never gained traction.

As did a bill reintroduced last July by northern Tri-Valley Congressman Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord), legislation also inspired by Steinle's death to mandate all federal agencies to implement rules to help prevent law enforcement officers' service weapons from being lost or stolen.

DeSaulnier's bill has failed to advance in the Democratic-controlled House.

The lack of legislative action is hard to fathom, especially since now-President Donald Trump invoked Steinle's death and her memory as a rallying cry for his immigration policy and border wall proposals on the campaign trail before his election in November 2016.

It appears those words were little more than a talking point to stoke the fire. When the Republicans pulling the strings really want something done during the Trump era, they find a way.

At least he has talked about the case. Democratic candidates were hardly considering serious policy changes inspired by Steinle in the presidential race four years ago, and it's hard to imagine her name even crossing the minds of any Dems vying in the 2020 campaign (unless you count the three-plus months Swalwell was a declared candidate).

Zarate has been scheduled for a trial in federal court this month on two criminal charges of being an ex-felon and an undocumented immigrant in possession of a gun in relation to the Steinle case. Forgive us if we expect nothing more than time-served or some other slap on the wrist.

Kate Steinle's case is among the most disturbing miscarriages of justice, from top to bottom, for Pleasanton in the nearly two decades that the Weekly has been in publication.

We're sorry, Kate. We're sorry we couldn't do more to help your story effect change. We're sorry your adopted hometown of San Francisco, your state and your country didn't do more for you and your family. Then again, sorry only goes so far.

Editor's note: We would also like to praise the quality reporting provided by Bay City News Service, on which we have relied for many of the out-of-area trial coverage and court updates from this case. Without their strong, continued reporting, this small local newspaper could not have covered the Steinle case as well.

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25 people like this
Posted by Michael Austin
a resident of Pleasanton Meadows
on Jan 16, 2020 at 3:24 pm

The first time Kates Law came up for a vote in congress, Eric Swalwell voted against it. I called Swalwell out on his no vote in an email exchange, in which Swalwell admitted his no vote, that email was published in the Pleasanton weekly.

Th second time Kates Law came up for a vote in congress Swalwell voted yes in favor of Kates Law. The law never exited committee.

36 people like this
Posted by Jake Waters
a resident of Birdland
on Jan 16, 2020 at 7:07 pm

Thank you Pleasanton Weekly Editorial Board for your article. You nailed it from top to bottom.

28 people like this
Posted by FrequentWalkerMiles
a resident of Another Pleasanton neighborhood
on Jan 16, 2020 at 7:38 pm

I disagree with one point of the editorial.

No new law as a result is the least of it. The fact is a multitude of stare and federal laws exist yet the city And county of San Francisco did everything they could to prevent the perp locked up in the first place, and the SF jury believed whatever sob stories that came across their lap. The state’s electorate then keeps rewarding SF politicians with senatorial sears, governorships, and presidential endorsements tell us the state, and sf in particular, doesn’t care what laws are on the books

So what exactly would more laws do, other than let Bay Area politicians the ability to claim “they did their part”?

17 people like this
Posted by Lynn Sutton
a resident of Livermore
on Jan 16, 2020 at 11:04 pm

I’d like to say to Kate’s family I’m so very sorry and my heart bleeds for you. Justice definitely wasn’t served on Kate’s behalf. I can’t imagine the anguish your poor family has had to go through. IT”S SO WRONG!!!!!!! Our world is going down the S^^t hole and it rips my heart out that what will our world be like when our grandchildren grow up?

The one nagging question that keeps running through my mind is what if a famous star or performer was in town for a show and decided to take an afternoon stroll on the pier taking and taking in the sites and fresh SF ocean air before heading back to the hotel. DOES anyone think this verdict outcome would still be the same as it is for our beautiful Kate? NOT!!!!

I can’t imagine what this family is going through. My prayers are with you. GOD BLESS.

29 people like this
Posted by Willy
a resident of Old Towne
on Jan 17, 2020 at 9:37 am

Let's correct this Liberal bullsh-t at the ballot box!

15 people like this
Posted by Realist
a resident of Harvest Park Middle School
on Jan 17, 2020 at 10:07 am

If there's no money involved, if it doesn't benefit some powerful and rich elite in some way, Congress won't do anything.

17 people like this
Posted by sanity
a resident of Amador Estates
on Jan 17, 2020 at 10:21 am

Best article I have ever read in the Pleasanton Weekly.
Find this author and clone him.

9 people like this
Posted by Kerrie
a resident of Dublin
on Jan 19, 2020 at 12:39 pm

Who is the author? What is her/his name. Thank you.

5 people like this
Posted by Michael Austin
a resident of Pleasanton Meadows
on Jan 19, 2020 at 1:47 pm

A year or ago, I asked the publisher to attach a name to the papers editorial. The reply was, the editor, reporters and the publisher make up the editorial board, they publish it in that manner without attaching a single name to it.

3 people like this
Posted by Louise
a resident of Val Vista
on Jan 19, 2020 at 8:55 pm

So hard to comprehend

9 people like this
Posted by been there
a resident of Del Prado
on Jan 20, 2020 at 10:23 am

And don't forget that the initial crime was committed by the BLM ranger who tossed his gun into the backseat of his SUV (so he says) in a backpack....NO PROBLEM. And he WAS NOT DISCIPLINED or removed from duty, but was PROMOTED. Now that tells you something about what was going on behind the part of this story we are enraged about.
Talk about corruption at the highest levels.

6 people like this
Posted by My votes count.
a resident of Vintage Hills
on Jan 20, 2020 at 1:54 pm

Thank you, editorial board, for addressing an elephant in the room. I have personally met most of you, and have great respect for your collective professionalism, attention to detail, and honesty in reporting events that really matter.

Perhaps it is more important for us to know the names of the judges who rendered these decisions. Though they were appointed by governors, we can vote for them not to be retained. We can contact our state legislators expressing our displeasure and follow up by voting accordingly. It's not easy and it takes a village or more, but for Kate's sake, we have to do it.

3 people like this
Posted by David
a resident of Alisal Elementary School
on Jan 21, 2020 at 1:03 am

Anyone of us could have been Kate just out enjoying the waterfront with family. What a tragedy. And what a shameful legal system. The societal bar has been set so low that now people are not held accountable for murder? Nor real penalties for robbery, car break ins, trespassing, etc. and shooting up drugs in public and defecating on sidewalks is tolerated And BART is a haven for mental cases and shootings? Ever notice how everyone has a Ring or surveillance cameras around their homes now? It’s just all so sad.

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