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Jose Garcia-Zarate Found Mentally Incompetent To Stand Trial In Kate Steinle Slaying Gun Case

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- A federal court appointed psychologist has ruled that Jose Garcia-Zarate was mentally incompetent to stand trial on a gun possession charge related to the 2015 slaying of Kate Steinle on the San Francisco waterfront.

In a one-page order issued Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Vince Chhabria ruled that "the evaluator has concluded that the defendant, because of mental illness that is not presently being treated, is not competent to stand trial. The evaluator's report has been provided to the government and the defense."

Chhabria set a 1:30 p.m. court hearing on Feb. 19th to discuss the matter further with the attorneys on both sides.

A federal grand jury indicted Garcia-Zarate on December 5, 2017 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.

Gun charges related to the case on the state level had already been tossed out. A three-judge panel in 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 in state court, 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, state 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.

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