Steinle case not a reference point in debate

Published 12:37 pm Sunday, December 10, 2017

Too often in America we are reactive rather than proactive in addressing the nation’s problems.

With each bit of breaking news it seems that calm, considered debate is replaced by a flood of tweets and a wave of emotions.

So it is with the case of Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, the undocumented immigrant acquitted here of murder and involuntary manslaughter in the 2015 shooting death of Kate Steinle.

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In fact, the circumstances of Steinle’s death are far too nuanced to meaningfully affect the raging debate on immigration policies – from building a wall on the Mexican border, to allowing certain municipalities to operate as so-called sanctuary cities.

Moreover, the furor regarding this case could impact critical matters far removed from Steinle’s killing, most notably the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program known as DACA.

Congress faces a deadline to rescue the program that protects children from being deported.

There is reason to fear that the verdict in Garcia Zarate’s case might quash a DACA deal.

Sadly, Steinle’s death doesn’t even carry much weight in the debate over gun control. The weapon had been stolen from a car belonging to a federal Bureau of Land Management ranger – a crime that was never solved. Garcia Zarate claims he found the gun along the San Francisco waterfront, picked it up, and it discharged once, the bullet ricocheting off concrete and then striking Steinle as she walked nearby.

There is no disputing that Garcia Zarate was in the U.S. illegally and that his record included a string of nonviolent offenses. At the time of the shooting he had been released from a San Francisco jail despite a federal request that he be held for his sixth deportation.

Prosecutors made a serious tactical error in seeking a murder conviction in Garcia Zarate’s case, despite the fact there were no witnesses, no hint of a motive, and circumstantial evidence that pointed to an accidental shooting more so than a premeditated murder. The jury returned a guilty verdict on the lesser charge of gun possession.

President Trump predictably responded via Twitter that the verdict was a “travesty of justice.” He renewed his call for a border wall – relying on emotions more than facts to make his case. White supremacist groups have begun promoting #kateswall in support of Trump’s pet project.

The facts show that federal officials failed to obtain the required warrant that would have kept Garcia Zarate in a San Francisco cell prior to the shooting. Also at fault: the ranger who left his firearm in an unlocked car, and prosecutors who overreached in court.

A flawed process? Yes. A tragic death? Indeed. A meaningful reference point in the nation’s overarching immigration policy? No.


Peter Funt is a writer and speaker. He can be reached at