Photo credit to Jay Martin.


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From the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office

José Inez García Zárate is Just Another Innocent Man Who Pled Guilty to a Crime He Did Not Commit

On March 14, 2022, José Inez García Zárate pled guilty to two gun possession offenses in federal court, culminating in one of the most sensationalized criminal cases in this country’s history. One charge was for being an undocumented immigrant “in possession of a firearm” and another for being a “felon in possession of a firearm.” Mr. García Zárate, who is currently represented by Tony Serra, has already spent seventeen years of his life in federal prison for the crime of illegal reentry — the act of crossing the border without authorization. He has been in custody since July 1, 2015, after he was wrongfully accused of murder and manslaughter in the shooting death of Kathryn Steinle.

A close look at this plea bargain illustrates perfectly how mass incarceration works, and how zealous federal prosecutors carry awesome coercive power, capable of extracting confessions of guilt from the innocent. Statistics bear this out. Less than 2% of criminal defendants in the federal system ever go to trial after being charged with a crime.[1] And those who do take the chance to go to trial rarely win. This is because federal criminal law makes it far too easy to prove the commission of a crime. 

Let’s look at the facts: On November 30, 2017, a unanimous jury acquitted Mr. García Zárate after he was charged with murder and manslaughter. After carefully evaluating the evidence, the jury found that on July 1, 2015, Mr. García Zárate, homeless at the time, found an object wrapped in cloth that had been discarded under a swivel chair where he sat. The object turned out to be a fully loaded semi automatic firearm which had no manual trigger safety. Other unknown individuals unrelated to Mr. García Zárate had stolen the gun a few days earlier from a federal agent who had improperly stored his firearm in a backpack inside his vehicle while dining on the Embarcadero. They ultimately discarded the gun, which somehow made its way to Pier 14. The gun accidentally fired when Mr. García Zárate picked up the wrapped object. Pointed toward the ground, the gun fired a single round which hit the concrete pavement 12 feet away, then ricocheted randomly another 80 feet, ultimately striking Ms. Steinle, causing her death.

The jury deliberated for several days, and found Mr. García Zárate not guilty of murder and manslaughter. A California appellate court reversed his gun possession offenses, holding that the trial court judge failed to instruct the jury on the momentary possession offense. This is because if Mr. García Zárate only discovered the object was a gun after he picked it up, and then discarded it immediately after it accidently fired, this seconds-long possession was momentary, unintentional, and did not constitute a crime.

Ms. Steinle’s death was undoubtedly an awful tragedy. She became one of the nearly 500 people in the United States each year to die as a result of an accidental shooting. But instead of focusing on the very real pandemic of accidental gun injuries and deaths, the national media, incited by Donald Trump, focused on Mr. García Zárate’s immigration status as a motivating factor in Ms. Steinle’s death. To be clear, Mr. García Zárate’s immigration status had nothing to do with the tragic accident and it was racist and xenophobic to focus on that unrelated aspect of Mr. García Zárate. The incident became Donald Trump’s racist rallying cry, helping launch him to the presidency.

But in the end, nothing about Mr. García Zárate’s guilty plea changes the physical evidence in the case, nor does it mean he is guilty of a crime. His time in custody has been nearly unbearable and has taken a toll on his mental health. He is now yet another innocent person trapped in a shockingly cruel federal criminal court system who accepted a plea bargain to avoid another lengthy trial and more jail time. In the end, we are troubled and disappointed by this unjust outcome, which points to the systemic failures in our criminal system. 




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