A jury in San Francisco recently acquitted Garcia Zarate of all charges in connection with the death of Kate Steinle, a beautiful 32-year-old woman. The case had received extraordinary coverage in the press because Zarate was an illegal immigrant who had been deported five times, only to make his way back across our porous Southern border, and it was a centerpiece in Donald Trump’s pledge to build a border wall.
I was not surprised that the jury acquitted Zarate on the murder charges; in California murder requires intent, and there was scant evidence that Zarate deliberately shot Steinle. But I find it difficult to rationalize why he was acquitted of involuntary manslaughter, which only requires reckless conduct that results in someone’s death.
Many people are outraged by the verdict, in part because Steinle’s death has been conflated with other issues, such as illegal immigration, sanctuary cities and the border wall. When President Trump learned of the verdict, he Tweeted, “A disgraceful verdict in the Kate Steinle case! No wonder the people of our Country are so angry with Illegal Immigration.” And the next day he Tweeted, “The Kate Steinle killer came back and back over the weakly protected Obama border, always committing crimes and being violent, and yet this info was not used in court. His exoneration is a complete travesty of justice. BUILD THE WALL!”
I am not defending the verdict in the Steinle case. But I believe it is important for one to distinguish between justice as an outcome and justice as a process. I have previously written in Lagniappe about the distinction between equality as an outcome and equality as a process.
“Equality as an outcome” is a core principle of socialism: everybody gets the same amount, every kid gets a trophy, and there are no “winners” and “losers.” But to achieve this egalitarian ideal, socialists must create a process that treats people unequally; a system whereby low achievers are helped while high achievers are hindered and taxed.
Our system of justice calls for everyone to stand equal before the law, but it offers no guarantee the outcomes will be considered just and fair by all. If one wants the system to produce only outcomes they like, then they must take the blindfold off and rig the system to produce those outcomes. That’s what’s called a kangaroo court.
In the wake of Zarate’s acquittal, some pundits blamed the verdict on San Francisco jurors and said it would have been different if the trial had been held elsewhere. That’s probably true. But a basic tenant of our legal system is that one is entitled to be tried before a jury of one’s peers.
This precept dates back to the Magna Carta in England. Originally, it meant nobles should not be judged by commoners and commoners should not be judged by nobles. In the United States today, it means one is entitled to a jury representative of their fellow citizens. Yes, it is possible to shop around for the right venue and the right jurors to get a certain verdict. But would that be a fair and just process?
President Trump lamented in his tweet that the jury had not been told Zarate was a convicted felon and illegal immigrant who had been deported five times, the implication being that this information would have changed the verdict. He is probably right. That’s why information unrelated to the crime is excluded from the trial. If you were on trial for robbing a convenience store, would you want the prosecutor telling the jury that you are a wife-beating, Satanist pedophile who once killed a kitten? If Zarate were on trial for violating our immigration laws, information about his illegal entries would be relevant. But he was on trial for murder.
Following the trial, there were calls for the Justice Department to find a way to right this unjust verdict by bringing additional charges. This is reminiscent of the outrage in the black community following the trial of the four policemen who beat Rodney King in 1992. Their trial took place in Simi Valley, a prosperous, predominantly white, suburb of Los Angeles, and the officers were acquitted by a jury of eleven whites and one Hispanic. Would the verdict have been different if the trial had been in East L.A. where the beating took place? I believe so.
But the Justice Department stepped in to produce a “just” verdict, charging the police officers with violating Rodney King’s civil rights. To me, the Justice Department was dancing a bit too close to double jeopardy, in which a person is tried twice for the same crime. In our system of justice, prosecutors only get one bite at the apple. You can’t try someone over and over until you get the verdict you like and consider just.
Following the verdict in Zarate’s trial, his attorney, Matt Gonzalez, suggested the jurors were sending a message to President Trump about his immigration policies. I doubt Gonzales was speaking for the jurors when suggesting they took their jury duty so cavalierly as to let a murderer walk free in order to send a message to Trump. I suspect he was taking advantage of his few moments before a national audience to express his personal anti-Trump views.
The only way I can make sense of Zarate’s acquittal on the involuntary manslaughter charge is that with all the emotion whipped up around the Steinle case, the prosecutors felt pressure to overcharge Zarate and go for a murder conviction. This meant they had to convince the jurors not just that he fired the gun, but that he intended to kill Steinle when he fired it. But the loaded gun had been stolen from a federal agent four days earlier, and prosecutors were unable to tie Zarate to the theft. Moreover, Zarate had been living on the street, eating out of garbage cans for three months, and he didn’t have the means to obtain the gun himself. All of this led jurors to conclude that he found the gun.
Prosecutors were also unable to provide jurors with a motive for Zarate to murder Steinle, whom he did not know; or convince them that Zarate aimed the gun at Steinle’s back when the bullet that struck her had ricocheted from 100 feet away.
The problem with prosecutorial overcharge is that if prosecutors can’t prove the higher charge, they may lose credibility with the jurors. If the prosecutors had simply gone for involuntary manslaughter, they might have gotten their conviction.
The lesson is that politics doesn’t belong in the courtroom. Fairness and justice are subjective; if you try to manipulate the judicial system to produce certain outcomes, you undermine it as a system of justice.