The acquittal of an undocumented Mexican immigrant for the death of a woman on a pier in San Francisco surprised his family, outraged President Donald Trump and galvanized anti-immigration forces throughout the country.
But for the jury, the high-profile murder case was apparently reduced to a question of reasonable doubt, according to experts in criminal prosecution. The members of the jury were obviously not convinced that the defendant, José Inés García Zárate, acted with intent, a judge that prosecutors must approve to convict him on the most serious charges.
"As controversial and tragic as this case may be, and as political as it has become, my best guess is that this turned out to be a very conventional case in which … the defense simply casts doubt on the theory of the accusation. "said Robert Weisberg, professor of criminal justice at Stanford Law School.
Kathryn Steinle, 32, was fatally shot in the back on July 1, 2015, while she and her father were walking along Pier 14 in San Francisco's tourist district, Embarcadero. Defense attorneys argued that García Zárate, 45, who was deported five times, killed her in a strange accident after a bullet ricocheted off a concrete road. Prosecutors argued that he intended to shoot and kill her.
Trump took advantage of the case during his presidential campaign as proof that the United States needed his proposed wall along the border with the United States, and the killing became a high point in the national furor over illegal immigration. In the middle of the political debate, San Francisco was forced to defend its policy of "sanctuary city".
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Garcia Zarate was found guilty on Thursday of being a criminal in possession of a firearm. But he was acquitted of more serious charges: murder in the first degree, murder in the second degree and involuntary manslaughter.
"My general thought is that if it is quite clear that he did not intend to shoot him, given that the bullet bounced on the sidewalk, you can not discuss the most direct and obvious theory of murder: the intention to kill," he said. George Fisher, a former Assistant Attorney General of Mbadachusetts.
"It would be difficult in those circumstances to push a jury beyond a reasonable doubt," said Fisher, who is currently a professor at Stanford Law School.
But some observers have questioned why García Zarate was not convicted of at least involuntary manslaughter, a charge that generally applies to crimes that are unlawful but unintentional.
Weisberg, the criminal justice professor, who was not involved in the case, said he was "particularly surprised" that the jury did not condemn García Zárate for Homicide "It is not unlikely to think that the shooting was grossly negligent," he said.
Weisberg said prosecutors may have had trouble reconciling first and second degree homicide charges with the manslaughter charge. that they were in a situation where they could not argue that the shooting was accidental and intentional, "he said.
Legal experts who spoke with NBC News dismissed speculation that the jury members, selected from the Liberal San Francisco, may have been trying to send a message to the Trump administration.
"Whether you were a liberal or a conservative, you were all appalled by the murder of Kate Steinle," said Jim Hammer, a former San Francisco prosecutor. "I do not think that liberals are more likely to let a killer go if they are convinced he is guilty, I think that is nonsense."
Hammer, who once headed the homicide unit in the San Francisco District Attorney's Office, added that in his experience the San Franciscans were generally "more receptive" to the arguments of the defense attorneys. But the primal political narrative surrounding the case, he said, surely was not what motivated the jury.
The judge during the trial prohibited the discussion of García Zarate's immigration status, including the fact that he was repeatedly deported to Mexico, only to return to the United States five times. Instead, the jury of six men and six women were asked to focus on the events surrounding Steinle's death.
"The jury did not declare him innocent," Hammer said. "They said there are reasonable doubts about their guilt, and that is our system throughout the country: Twelve strangers entered the room and spent six days deliberating what they saw, I think people should respect that."
"People may be disappointed," Hammer said, "but in the end, this is the rule of law."