A Mexican man acquitted of murder in the 2015 shooting of a woman on a San Francisco pier that became a national flashpoint over immigration pleaded guilty Monday to federal gun charges.
Jose Inez Garcia Zarate, 51, entered his plea nearly seven years after shooting Kate Steinle on July 1, 2015, while she walked on the crowded waterfront. The case helped fuel a fierce national debate on immigration and sanctuary cities, which limit local cooperation with federal immigration authorities.
In late 2017, a San Francisco Superior Court jury acquitted Garcia Zarate of various charges including murder. But shortly after his acquittal, federal prosecutors charged him with two counts of illegal gun possession.
The federal gun charges had been pending since 2017 after U.S. District Court Judge Vince Chhabria raised concerns about Garcia Zarate's mental capacities. Two doctors diagnosed Garcia Zarate with schizophrenia and found him unfit to stand trial because he couldn't follow the court proceedings.
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One of the doctors reported to the court last month that Garcia Zarate was competent to stand trial after regularly taking his medication.
On Monday, Chhabria asked Garcia Zarate to summarize the charges against him as a way to confirm his competency.
“The charges are because I was in the country illegally and I had a firearm,” Garcia Zarate said in Spanish through a court interpreter.
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Garcia Zarate had been deported five times and was wanted for a sixth deportation proceeding when he fatally shot Steinle, 32.
He acknowledged holding the gun that killed Steinle but said it fired accidentally when he found it wrapped in a T-shirt under a bench on Pier 14, where she was walking with her father.
The shooting turned into a major campaign issue in multiple national and local races across the country. Former President Donald Trump repeatedly referred to the shooting during his 2016 campaign to bolster his argument for tougher immigration policies and his opposition to so-called sanctuary cities that limit cooperation with immigration officials.
Garcia Zarate faces a maximum of 10 years in prison. He is scheduled to be sentenced on June 6.