Sunday, December 03, 2017

After the Steinle verdict: the decent, the losers, and the winners

Kate Steinle is still tragically dead. The 32 year old woman was just walking on the Embarcadero with her father in July 2015 when a bullet punctured her heart. The apparently dim-witted homeless man who randomly fired a found weapon was acquitted of responsibility for her killing by a San Francisco jury on Thursday, though held guilty of being a felon in possession of a gun.

And much of the country is up in arms. Rightwing Twitter wants a boycott of the City by the Bay. I kind of suspect they weren't coming here anyway, and wouldn't enjoy the place if they did, so that's not so worrisome. President Cheato is raving that this has something to do with San Francisco's welcome to immigrants and we should build his wall. Just as in the 2016 campaign, he's using other people's pain for his gain and inflaming racial fears.

I don't have any special knowledge of the case beyond what I read in the papers, but I have observations that I haven't seen brought together in most sources.

Devastated and decent
The Steinle family. The Chronicle recorded a short video, Mending the Heart, in which Steinle's father conveys his dignified determination not to participate in a blaming circus. He tries very hard to keep focus on the real harm, his daughter's death. And he stays away from vengeance-filled vituperation against the shooter or the city. (Kate's brother isn't so measured, but her father is the main spokesman.) Watch this soon at the link and weep; Chronicle links aren't always durable.

District Attorney George Gascon. Gascon's job is to decide who is to be charged with what crime in this city. He routinely throws the book at very young men rounded up on drug charges. He routinely exonerates police officers who shoot unarmed suspects. Presumably feeling political pressure to appear tough, he charged Jose Ines Garcia Zarate with intent to kill, including first degree murder. No wonder the charged didn't stick; the evidence showed Steinle was hit by a ricochet and Garcia Zarate seemed to lack both motive and capacity. If Gascon had dared to charge what the facts as found by the jury seemed to indicate, he might have gotten a conviction on some level of accidental manslaughter. But by going for broke, he chose to make a weak case unsustainable. (See Tim Redmond's devastating description of Gascon's failure here.)

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). It gets lost in the fog, but Garcia Zarate was on the street that fatal day because ICE neglected to get a warrant to pick him up from San Francisco County custody. San Francisco's "sanctuary" status means we don't just turn over inmates because someone at the Feds calls the jail and asks for a prisoner. Our law enforcement officers are required to follow the rules. In this country, it takes (or should take) a legal warrant to hand someone into custody. ICE didn't do its job and get the right judicial order; the SF Sheriff's Department merely followed the rules. Garcia Zarate became yet another homeless San Franciscan.

Matt Gonzalez. Gonzalez's past political career didn't make me a fan; a guy who would run as Ralph Nader's VP choice in the 2008 election demonstrated a complete lack of seriousness about U.S. politics. But in his role as lead public defender in this case, he did his job masterfully, enabling the jury to get beyond the noise and stick to the evidence. And his subsequent warning to the Cheato and company was timely:

“For those who might be critical of this verdict, there are a number of people that have commented on this case in the last couple of years — the attorney general of the United States, the president and vice president of the United States — let me just remind them that they are themselves are under investigation by a special prosecutor in Washington, D.C.,” Gonzalez said outside court.

“They may themselves soon avail themselves of the presumption of innocence and beyond a reasonable doubt standard,” Gonzalez said. “And I would ask them to reflect on that before they comment or disparage the result in this case.”


The jury. Mostly criminal cases never get as far as being heard by a jury of fellow/sister citizens (much less a jury of their peers.) In 2012, 94 percent of state cases never reached trial. Most charges end in a plea deal with the defendant agreeing to guilt for some offense in order to receive a lesser sentence. But in the rare cases in which defendants do face a jury, ordinary people can prove thoughtful and discerning as I've written here from personal experience. Jurors often end up taking the momentous task they've been stuck with very conscientiously. Somehow it doesn't surprise me that a San Francisco jury made up of people who've likely seen quite a few individuals like Garcia Zarate on their streets needed more evidence than raw prejudice to make the man a deliberate murderer.

I have jury behavior on my mind as I'm on the hook for such service myself next week. I'm confident that nothing will come of it, as no attorney on either side would put me on a panel, but going through the motions is a welcome citizenship task.


Rain Trueax said...

I don't normally post here when you use a derogatory term for the President. I didn't like it when others did the same for Obama. But, in this case, I have some thoughts I won't be able to share elsewhere.

The only evidence for the gun being found was the shooter's word. He made false claims about it going off accidentally. I say false because it was stolen four blocks from the pier from a government car. A Sig Sauer P239 does not have a hair trigger because it is meant only to be used in law enforcement and has a hard pull to fire (gun expert in my house). The jury requested being able to pull the trigger and the judge refused. The judge refusing is typical in my mind of the problem juries have-- not given all the evidence they would want. It seems someone should have been allowed to handle the gun in the courtroom. Whether he stole it we'll never know, but given his record (something else the jury was not given) it could well have been with an intent to sell it at some point. First he said he wanted to shoot the sea lions and then it was it just went off.

He wasn't so mentally ill that he couldn't make a decision to go to SF because it was a sanctuary city, something that had prevented his most recent potential deportation, which would have not had him there to have a gun that he could use to kill someone-- murder or not.

What they should have charged him with was manslaughter, intentional or not, still a significant crime, for total carelessness that led to a death. Murder, since it was a ricochet, was always impossible to prove.

What I had against being on a jury the one time I was is how much you don't get. Our courts keep a lot from juries, which makes it hard to feel fair. In my trial, a woman was charged with driving while drunk-- felony and a misdemeanor of lying about hitting a mailbox in her trailer park. The police showed up several hours after the driving event. Her blood alcohol showed her too drunk to drive legally.

We were a jury of mixed ages and sexes. An old neighbor of ours was also on the jury. She was the only black. The woman on trial had been slicked up but it was obvious she was in a low economic class and education. She did not testify.

We found her innocent of driving while drunk since there had been so long since she hit the mailbox and plenty of time to buy liquor (her claim) and get drunk. We gave her the benefit of the doubt to avoid her getting a felony conviction. Afterward, the judge asked for us to explain our decision when the courtroom had been cleared. Several of us spoke and it was the same reason-- the misdemeanor was the hope he could get her help for her drinking problem by ordering it. She probably had been driving drunk given what she hit but you don't want to ruin someone's life (who is already down and out) based on a probably. She had a surly bunch of guys who had come to watch the trial, definitely, she was running with a bad crowd whatever else was going on.

I'd never want to serve on a jury again given what is kept from you, and you're supposed to potentially ruin someone's life with a lot of the trial based on the rule of law not truth. You can't ask questions to find out if this or that was considered. We had no idea if she had previous driving infractions as it wasn't permitted. The same problem the jury in SF had regarding the shooter. He had had I think 5 felony convictions generally related to theft and drugs. That is where his story of finding the gun wrapped in a t-shirt under his bench can be questioned. A guy who steals to pay for his drugs likely could have stolen that gun himself and was out there on the pier to find someone to buy it. Juries though can't operate on probables and it sometimes benefits a potential offender and sometimes works against them. In this case,with no way to test the gun, he benefited from our system as he had when he was previously deported and could come back with no penalty, someone who probably isn't coming for work or capable of it.

janinsanfran said...

Hi Rain: as I said, I never end up on the jury when called to serve. But I have definitely heard from others that they felt they were denied all the information they should have had when called to deliberate. That seems to happen more than the law requires, in part because appropriate vigorous advocacy distorts the process.

Re the Steinle verdict: I continue to think the DA blew the case by overcharging. Insofar as we have any facts, this was a murderous accident and should have been charged as such.

Rain Trueax said...

Hey, we agree for once on both things :). It's frustrating on the juries and why I no longer favor the death penalty no matter how heinous the murder.

John T said...

janinsanfran - Thanks for posting this thoughtful blog post and Rain, thanks for a reasoned, enlightening discussion. I have been on the jury and I've sat at the prosecution table deciding what evidence you put out. When you have good lawyers working for you, you get to see how carefully they frame the case by choosing which evidence to present. The storytelling skill of a good legal team is a thing to behold. But on the jury, I'm always torn between trying to understand what the presented evidence tells you and how the story would change with other evidence. That's part of the game of being human; we all know we're not getting the full story on anything today so we fill in the blanks. The legal system instructs us not to do this but we're human.

As for Gascón's overreach here, it was pretty bad. Even the manslaughter charge he presented to the jury as a third option included malevolent intent. That was always going to be tough to make stick.