If you are inclined to commit a heinous crime, San Francisco is the place for you.
You can sneak into City Hall armed with a .38-caliber revolver, murder the mayor and a supervisor in cold blood, and get away with it. All you need to do is conjure some preposterous defense. Blame it on an excessive consumption of junk food like Twinkies and you can beat the rap. You know… eat a Twinkie and commit murder. A San Francisco jury will lap it up.
So, it should come as no surprise that the killer of Kate Steinle was acquitted Thursday of murder and involuntarily manslaughter.
Jose Ines Garcia Zarate and his lawyers invented a ludicrous defense by claiming “the gun just went off” by itself, ending the life of a 32-year-old woman who was walking along a pier with her father. It was a perfect defense for a notoriously liberal city – guns kill, not people. Sure enough, the San Francisco jury swallowed it hook, line and sinker.
Logically, he should have been convicted of involuntary manslaughter. Beyond that, his claim that the gun went off accidentally is evidence that he was reckless in its handling. This, too, constitutes grounds for a manslaughter conviction.
Forget the law or common sense. These are trivial matters that don’t count for much in the “City by the Bay.” Liberal doctrine there trumps everything. It infects the body politic and excuses all manner of aberrant behavior, even criminality.
Prosecutors argued that Garcia Zarate intentionally shot Steinle with a stolen Sig Sauer .40-caliber handgun. There was sufficient evidence to convict him on either first-degree or second- degree murder.
But even if the jury was not persuaded that the accused acted intentionally and with malice aforethought, as the murder law in California demands, he was clearly guilty of involuntarily manslaughter.
A simple reading of the statute, Penal Code Section 192(b), explains why. It states that an unlawful act resulting in death, or criminal negligence (recklessness) causing death, are both grounds for conviction on a charge of involuntary manslaughter.
Indeed, the jury found Garcia Zarate guilty of an unlawful act – being a felon in possession of a firearm. And he admitted he shot Steinle. Logically, he should have been convicted of involuntary manslaughter. Beyond that, his claim that the gun went off accidentally is evidence that he was reckless in its handling. This, too, constitutes grounds for a manslaughter conviction.
But there’s more.
When he was arrested, Garcia Zarate told police he was shooting at a seal. That is an intentional act that establishes the crime of felony murder. In the case of People v. Hansen (9 Cal. 4th 300), the California Supreme Court determined that discharging a firearm into an area with people nearby is an inherently dangerous felony for the purposes of second-degree felony murder.
Of course, the defendant’s statement to police completely contradicted the claims his attorney made in court. So which story was true and which was a lie? Was Garcia Zarate deliberately firing the gun or did it go off accidentally? Both explanations cannot be true, which means someone is lying. That should have been enough to discredit and discard the entire defense case.
Yet no amount of reasoning or evidence appeared to be of any consequence to this San Francisco jury. And frankly, not much has changed since 1979, when a seemingly clueless, biased or gullible jury acquitted Dan White of murdering Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk.
The 1979 case is still vivid in my mind. I was two blocks away from City Hall, sitting in a law school class, when the killings took place. One of my professors represented White in court. I sat in on parts of the trial.
The defense called a psychiatrist to the witness stand. The psychiatrist testified that White’s diet of junk food, including Twinkies, donuts and Coca-Cola, caused a significant change in his mood and behavior.
Armed with this expert testimony, the defense attorney argued that his client suffered from “diminished mental capacity” so severe that he was incapable of the deliberation required for murder. The high sugar content and preservatives, he said, made White act violently, not with malice.
It was a total crock, I thought, but it worked. White was acquitted of the murder charges, but convicted of manslaughter. After roughly five years behind bars, he was released. It turns out, he killed again. Himself.
I spent several years trying cases in San Francisco. It was a defense attorney’s dream, which confirmed the observation of my professor who remarked: “Anything will fly in front of a San Francisco jury. All they need is an excuse, however improbable or impossible.”
He was right back then and, obviously, now.