Two years ago, Donald Trump chose to demagogue a tragic death into political hay. Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who had entered the country illegally five times, had killed Kate Steinle, a 32-year-old American.
Trump seized on the incident, using it to champion a law, which he dubbed “Kate’s Law,” that would sentence all second-time illegal border crossers to a minimum prison term of five years.
When I learned of this, I wrote about the absurdity of the proposed law in The Mystifying Math of Kate’s Law and Kate’s Law Sinking?. We would be criminalizing an act that is wrong only because we define it to be — crossing the border twice without proper documents — based on some imaginary correlation between that act and violent crimes. And all based on the actions of one — that’s right, one — undocumented immigrant.
When I read about this two years ago, I assumed that the actual case against Zarate was airtight and that his taking of Steinle’s life was an especially heinous act.
Bad assumption on my part.
Turns out that Steinle lost her life in a freak accident. Yes, the bullet fired by Zarate killed Steinle, but only after it ricocheted off the pavement from long range. Zarate claimed the firing was accidental. One thing seemed reasonably clear: The gun was aimed not at Steinle, but at the ground. From the NY Times report:
Ballistic experts testified that the bullet ricocheted about 15 feet (4.5 meters) from where Zarate was sitting and then traveled another 80 feet (24 meters) before striking Steinle in the back and piercing her heart.
His attorneys argued that even an expert marksman would have difficulty pulling off such a “skip shot.”
Zarate just was acquitted on all charges other than the possession of a firearm by a felon. He had been charged with crimes ranging from involuntary manslaughter to first-degree murder. Yes, you read that correctly: first-degree murder.
This is speculation, but it looks like the following transpired:
First, Trump, Bill O’Reilly at Fox, a few whacked out right-wing Congressional reps, and my friend Paula Pennypacker decided the incident was a basis to enact Kate’s Law. In the process, Zarate was demonized relentlessly as a murderer.
Second, after Fox News trumpeted the cause and House Republicans actually passed a bill (which sat in the Senate untouched for months), what choice did prosecutors have? The actions of Trump and his right-wing cronies forced them to overcharge. The result? They took a case that should have been charged as negligent homicide and instead tried it as first-degree murder. At trial, they had to argue to the jury that Zarate shot the gun intentionally for the purpose of killing Steinle with a bank shot off the cement from about 100 feet away. Tough argument, huh?
So, Trump tried to parlay (a) a freak accident, and (b) Zarate’s status as an undocumented immigrant who had crossed the border illegally multiple times and had prior convictions, into (1) a murder charge and (2) a draconian law that would send border crossers to prison for terms of five years or more.
The result? Unsurprisingly, Zarate was acquitted of all major charges.
And Trump’s reaction?
He’s furious of course, as is Paula Pennypacker. They believe it was a liberal jury that let Zarate off the hook. I’m still trying to learn how they ascertained the political leanings of all twelve jurors. They must have all been liberal, because if one or more were conservative the jury would had to have been hung. A conservative would have known that Zarate acted with intent to kill, right?
How will this impact Kate’s Law? Too early to tell, but it’s hard to see how the incident now can be used to fan emotional flames into enough yes votes. I know, they’re on a roll after getting atrocious tax bills through both chambers. But still.
In a way, Trump’s logic still holds. If we do a better job of locking out immigrants, at whatever the cost, there will be fewer people in America who might cause a freak gun accident like the one the killed Steinle.
Maybe they’ll realize that we could achieve the same result with more effective gun laws? No, that might actually save lives.