Man declared incompetent in San Francisco pier killing case

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In this July 17, 2015, file photo, flowers and a portrait of Kate Steinle remain at a memorial site on Pier 14 in San Francisco. A Mexican man who was acquitted of killing Steinle on a San Francisco pier in a case that became a national flash point was found incompetent to stand trial Friday, Feb. 14, 2020, on federal gun charges. U.S. District Court Judge Vince Chhabria said in a court order that a psychiatric evaluator had concluded Jose Inez Garcia-Zarate was not competent to stand trial “because of mental illness that is not presently being treated.” (Paul Chinn/San Francisco Chronicle via AP, File)

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A Mexican man who was acquitted of killing a woman on a San Francisco pier in a case that became a national flashpoint was found incompetent to stand trial Friday on federal gun charges.

U.S. District Court Judge Vince Chhabria said in a court order that a psychiatric evaluator had concluded Jose Inez Garcia-Zarate was not competent to stand trial “because of mental illness that is not presently being treated.”

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Chhabria said he would meet with lawyers from both sides next week to discuss the next steps. If either side objects to the findings, a hearing would likely be required to examine Garcia-Zarate’s competency. If neither side disputes the findings, the court will discuss whether the defendant should be treated locally for mental illness or sent to a federal facility outside California.

Defense attorney Tony Serra said he would contest the finding.

“He is entitled to a hearing,” Serra said. “I’m protesting that he is competent enough for this case.”

Francisco Sanchez (R) enters court for an arraignment with San Francisco public defender Jeff Adachi (L) on July 7, 2015 in San Francisco, California. Francisco Sanchez pleaded not guilty to charges that he shot and killed 32 year-old Kathryn Steinle as she walked on Pier 14 in San Francisco with her father last week. (Photo by Michael Macor-Pool/Getty Images)

Friday’s decision is the latest delay to a case that touched off a national debate over immigration and sanctuary city policies.

Garcia-Zarate was due to stand trial in January for two counts of illegal gun possession. But Chhabria postponed the trial for an evaluation amid concerns about his “apparent mental illness.”

President Donald Trump and others in his administration have repeatedly pointed to the case as a reason for toughening the country’s immigration policies. Garcia-Zarate was living in the country illegally and had been deported five times before the shooting.

A phalanx of Metropolitan Police Department officers create a barrier around and anti-immiration rally in front of the White House December 3, 2017 in Washington, DC., a response to the acquittal of an undocumented Mexican immigrant in the 2015 shooting death of Kate Steinle in San Francisco. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Jurors in California court found him not guilty of killing Kate Steinle in 2015. But they convicted him of being a felon in possession of a gun, leading to a three-year jail sentence.

A state appeals court threw out the conviction last August, finding that jurors received improper instructions from the trial judge. Federal prosecutors then charged him with gun possession in 2017.

Garcia-Zarate acknowledged holding the gun that killed Steinle. But he said it fired accidentally when he found it wrapped in a T-shirt under a bench on the pier, where Steinle was walking with her father. The weapon belonged to a U.S. Bureau of Land Management ranger who reported it stolen from his parked car.

The case fueled criticism of San Francisco’s sanctuary city policy, which limits local officials from cooperating with federal immigration authorities on deportations.

The San Francisco sheriff’s department released Garcia-Zarate from jail several weeks before the shooting despite a federal request to detain him until immigration authorities could take him into custody.

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