first published in Medium, September 12, 2021
An Open Letter to the Biden Administration:
It’s time to drop charges against
José Ines García Zárate
By Matt Gonzalez & Francisco Ugarte
After a unanimous jury exonerated Jose Ines Garcia Zarate on all state charges for the shooting death of Kate Steinle, he remains incarcerated. It’s been over six years since the tragedy, and nearly four years since his acquittal of murder and manslaughter. A California appellate court reversed his sole gun possession charge, holding the trial judge failed to properly instruct the jury on the “momentary possession” defense.
Garcia Zarate is still in custody only because then-President Donald Trump and then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions were outraged by the verdicts. In the hours following news of the acquittal, politically motivated indictments were filed in federal court, in effect, reviving the same gun possession charge Garcia Zarate had already faced in state court.
Rather than evaluate the jury’s finding, Trump and Sessions rushed to keep Garcia Zarate in custody. Thus far, their efforts are working. What they could not change, however, is that Garcia Zarate is factually innocent of the charges, including the federal indictment alleging gun possession.
In the recitation of the facts, both the Federal Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, along with a California Court of Appeal, agree that on July 1, 2015, Garcia Zarate was sitting in a swivel chair on Pier 14. While seated he bent down to pick up a discarded object he noticed underneath his chair. Inside a cloth T-shirt or rag was a military-grade, fully loaded semi-automatic handgun, with no manual trigger safety. The gun discharged when he picked it up. There was a single shot, the bullet hit the concrete pavement, and then ricocheted at an angle, ultimately striking Kate Steinle who was standing 90 feet away.
Three separate courts have now accepted facts pointing to Garcia Zarate’s innocence. So why is he still in prison? Isn’t it time to do something about this politically motivated injustice?
Garcia Zarate’s federal trial was set to go forward last year, but the judge in his case expressed doubts as to Garcia Zarate’s mental competency, which has prolonged his detention. Six years later, he languishes in jail.
Last fall, 81 million Americans turned out to the polls, voting decisively to reject the policies and politics of Donald Trump, hoping to restore some degree of intellectual honesty to the way our government makes decisions. With this mandate in place, why is the Biden Administration still pursuing Donald Trump’s idea of justice?
Letting go of a false narrative can be difficult. But one built on an attack on immigrants and American values must be confronted. President Trump, twice impeached, who instigated an armed attack on our Capital to undermine the results which removed him from office, repeatedly showed contempt for the rule of law.
Now is the time for the Biden administration to let the world know federal prosecutions will not be premised on lies and misinformation. Let’s finally tell the truth: this accidental shooting tragedy happened because we’re a country with over 400 million guns in private hands. Should we be surprised that deaths result daily from this allegiance?
Justice for Mr. Garcia Zarate is overdue. It is time to drop politically motivated charges against him. Like President Biden did with Trump’s litigation positions on the Affordable Care Act, voting rights, and sentence reductions under the First Step Act, he must reverse Trump’s position here. Continuing to prosecute Garcia Zarate rewards an abuse of prosecutorial power and undermines the rule of law.
Matt Gonzalez and Francisco Ugarte are attorneys at the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office who represented Mr. Garcia Zarate in state court.