Murder trial starts for man who stoked US immigration debate

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A murder trial started Monday for a Mexican man who set off a national immigration debate after he shot and killed a woman two years ago on a popular San Francisco pier.

Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, 54, has acknowledged shooting Kate Steinle in the back while she was walking with her father on the downtown pier on July 1, 2015.

But Garcia Zarate has said the shooting was accidental. He said he was handling a handgun he found wrapped in a T-shirt under a bench on the pier when it accidentally fired.

His lawyer told reporters before the trial started that his client was unaware that he had picked up a gun and that it went off as he unwrapped the T-shirt.

"He did not know the object in his hand was a gun," attorney Matt Gonzalez said before he headed into the courtroom. "He does not bear criminal responsibility."

Prosecutors have said that Zarate recklessly pointed the gun at people on the pier.

Garcia Zarate is charged with second-degree murder, which could result in a sentence of 15 years to life in prison. Assistant District Attorney Diana Garcia declined to comment on the case

Garcia Zarate had been deported five times and was homeless in San Francisco when he shot Steinle. He had recently completed a prison sentence for illegal re-entry when he was transferred to the San Francisco County jail to face a 20-year-old marijuana charge.

Prosecutors dropped that charge, and the San Francisco sheriff released Zarate from jail despite a federal immigration request to detain him for at least two more days for deportation. The sheriff's department said it was following the city's sanctuary policy of limited cooperation with federal immigration authorities.

The handgun belonged to a Bureau of Land Management ranger who reported that it was stolen from his parked car in San Francisco a week before Steinle was shot.

The shooting touched off a political furor during last year's presidential race, with President Donald Trump referring during his campaign to Steinle's death as a reason to toughen U.S. immigration policies.

Steinle's mother and brother were attending the beginning of the trial.

Since being elected, Trump has threatened to withhold federal funding to so-called sanctuary cities such as San Francisco, several of which have filed lawsuits to prevent the move.

None of that is at issue during the trial, and the judge has barred mention of the politics of immigration and gun control during the proceedings.

Garcia Zarate originally went by the name Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez when he was arrested. But Gonzalez said he now prefers to be called by his birth name of Zarate.