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Feds: State Court Ruling Has No Impact On Federal Prosecution In Kate Steinle Case

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- A state appeals court decision overturning the illegal gun possession conviction of Jose Ines Garcia-Zarate in the Kate Steinle case will have no impact on his federal prosecution, officials announced Tuesday.

U.S. Attorney David Anderson was adamant that the federal court prosecution of Garcia-Zarate will continue unfettered.

"The state-court ruling has no legal effect on the federal prosecution, which will continue," Anderson said. "A repeatedly deported, previously convicted felon has no right to possess a firearm under federal law, even if California extends him sanctuary."

On December 5, 2017, a federal grand jury indicted Garcia-Zarate for being a felon in possession of a firearm and ammunition, and for being an illegally present alien in possession of a firearm and ammunition.

He currently is in federal custody on the gun charges

The ruling last week by three judges in California's First Appellate District found that the state trial court failed to instruct the jury on a legal defense for Garcia-Zarate, that he possessed the gun too briefly to be convicted of possessing a firearm as a felon.

Public defender Matt Gonzalez, who argued the case before the jury, said the improper instruction meant that Garcia-Zarate did not get a fair trial.

"This really wasn't a close call. We were entitled to the instruction, and we should've had it. We thought that Mr. Garcia-Zarate would have been acquitted had the jury been instructed this way, so this is very gratifying for us," he said. "He picked up an object not knowing what it was, it fired, and he threw it to the ground when it did fire."

Garcia-Zarate had been tried for murder in the July 1, 2015, shooting of Steinle, who was walking with her father and a family friend on Pier 14 off The Embarcadero.

Garcia-Zarate's defense attorneys argued that he had picked up an object wrapped in rags, which he realized was a gun only when it discharged, hitting Steinle in the back.

He was acquitted of the murder. After that, prosecutors filed the weapons possession charges and Zarate was found guilty and sentenced to three years in prison.

The gun had been stolen from a U.S. Bureau of Land Management agent's car.

The case became a national flashpoint in debates over immigration, as Garcia-Zarate is an undocumented Mexican citizen who had been deported five times and had seven felony convictions.

The case was frequently cited by President Donald Trump as he sought more restrictive immigration policies.

After the acquittal in 2017, Trump called the verdict in "disgraceful" in a tweet, and former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions blamed the sanctuary city policy for Steinle's death.

A statement released Friday night by the San Francisco Police Officers Association said that again Steinle and her family have been victimized by judges who are protecting criminals.

"This is yet another disgusting injustice perpetrated by a broken criminal justice system that is more intent on re-harming victims of crime and their families than holding violent offenders accountable," Tony Montoya, president of the police officers association said.

Tony Serra, the attorney who is representing Garcia-Zarate on federal charges, said the state reversal means the district attorney will have the option of re-trying Garcia-Zarate on the gun charge.

"That kind of error causes reversals all the time. Then the prosecution has the prerogative of going again," Serra said. "It's going to be a big potential decision on what they're going to do."

The San Francisco district attorney's office was still weighing its options, spokesman Alex Bastian said. The state attorney general's office, which argued the case on appeal, also said it was reviewing the case.

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