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Firearm Expert Doubts Steinle Murder Weapon Discharged Accidentally

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- The gun used in the fatal shooting of Kate Steinle on a San Francisco was in good condition and probably wouldn't fire unless the trigger was pulled, a police firearms expert testified Tuesday.

Gerald Andrew Smith, a firearms expert with the San Francisco police crime lab, testified in the trial of Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, a 45-year-old homeless Mexican citizen being tried for second-degree murder in Steinle's death.

Steinle, a 32-year-old Pleasanton native who lived in San Francisco's South Beach neighborhood, was killed on the evening of July 1, 2015, by a single bullet as she walked on the pier with her father and another family member.

Police divers recovered a gun, a .40-caliber Sig Sauer P239 that had been reported stolen from an off-duty Bureau of Land Management ranger's vehicle days earlier, from the waters of the Bay the next day.

That stolen gun has come to sit at the center of the defense team's strategy, as they work to persuade the jury that it fired accidentally when Garcia Zarate found it stashed under a seat on the pier, wrapped in a T-shirt or rag, and picked it up to examine it.

Prosecutor Diana Garcia, however, is seeking to demonstrate that Garcia Zarate fired the gun deliberately.

Smith, a prosecution witness, said he examined the gun and found that it matched the bullet recovered in the shooting. That bullet ricocheted off the pier before it struck Steinle, a point the defense team has emphasized during the trial as supporting their theory of an accidental shooting.

The semiautomatic handgun was in good condition with no modifications, Smith said.

The gun has no external safety mechanisms to prevent firing. Instead, it can be placed in single-action mode, where the hammer is cocked, or double-action mode, where the trigger pull both cocks and releases the hammer, making it somewhat harder to fire, he said.

Its trigger pull, or the amount of force needed to pull the trigger, was measured at between 4.8 and 5.5 pounds in single-action mode or 9 to 9.8 pounds in double-action mode. Those levels were within half a pound of the manufacturer's specifications, Smith said.

"I found no mechanical issues with the firearm and my opinion is that this gun will fire only when the trigger is pulled," Smith said, stating that internal safety mechanisms would prevent the gun from firing if it were dropped.

Outside of court, Matt Gonzalez, chief attorney for the public defender's office, said the discussion of trigger pull measurements, decocking levers and internal safety mechanisms was misleading in that it might lead jurors to think the gun is harder to fire than is actually the case.

"We're talking about a very light measurement, and I think the way they presented it was to make it seem very hard. You could imagine a 10-pound trigger pull is very hard to fire," Gonzalez said, noting that the trigger pull is lighter if the trigger is pressed at, say, the very tip. "That's not the case."

Gonzalez said he is hoping the judge will allow the jurors to handle the firearm and feel for themselves what it felt like to pull the trigger in single-action and double-action mode.

"I have handled this very firearm, and the trigger pull is extremely light," he said. "That's why I am so confident that I would like the jury to be able to handle it."

The Steinle shooting has drawn national attention since it highlighted tensions over Sanctuary City policies used by San Francisco and other cities that limit the communication and cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration authorities.

Garcia Zarate, who had been previously deported numerous times, was released from San Francisco custody several months before the shooting after a minor marijuana charge against him was dismissed. The sheriff's department released him without contacting federal immigration authorities, as per city policy.

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