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Illegal Immigrant acquitted of Kathryn Steinle’s murder is sentenced to jail for gun possession

Defense lawyer Matt Gonzalez talks to the media at the San Francisco Hall of Justice in San Francisco, Calif., on Monday, Oct. 23, 2017 before the opening statements of the trial of Jose Ines Garcia-Zarate, an undocumented immigrant accused of shooting and killing Kate Steinle. Garcia Zarate was sentenced to jail for gun possession. (Laura A. Oda/Bay Area News Group/TNS)

A Mexican national who was acquitted in the fatal shooting of Kathryn Steinle was sentenced Friday to three years in prison on a lesser gun charge, but will get credit for time served.

Jose Ines Garcia Zarate was convicted on a single count of being a felon in possession of a firearm in November. Jurors had deliberated for several days before returning the verdict in the trial of the immigrant who is in the U.S. illegally, had been deported five times and freed under sanctuary laws before the fatal shooting.

Steinle’s death became a flashpoint in the national debate over people in the U.S. illegally and the role of local police in enforcing federal immigration laws. Steinle was shot in the back in July 2015 as she walked with her father on San Francisco’s Pier 14, near Embarcadero and Mission streets. Less than an hour later, Garcia Zarate, a seven-time felon, was arrested about a mile away from the shooting scene.

The verdict last year brought swift response from President Donald Trump, who had cited the slaying during his campaign to make his case for building a wall across the U.S.-Mexico border and to punish cities he accused of not cooperating with immigration enforcement.

At one point, he referred to Garcia Zarate as “this animal” who “shot that wonderful, that beautiful, woman in San Francisco.”

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In March 2015, when Garcia Zarate finished his third federal prison term for felony re-entry into the United States from Mexico, he was turned over to San Francisco authorities on a decades-old bench warrant alleging marijuana possession. Prosecutors declined to file charges.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement asked to be notified prior to his release, but city officials did not comply because Garcia Zarate did not meet their criteria, set in 2013, for turning over people to immigration officials.

He was freed.

The tragedy focused a harsh light on San Francisco’s status as a “sanctuary city,” and prompted several Republican presidential candidates to call on the federal government to punish such municipalities.

Federal authorities charged Garcia Zarate with immigration and gun violations in December. ICE has said it will take custody of Garcia Zarate once his case concluded.

He will be represented by J. Tony Serra on the federal charges. Serra is known for defending Chinatown gangster Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow.

Matt Gonzalez, chief attorney of the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office and Garcia Zarate’s lawyer in the state case, said Garcia Zarate “couldn’t be in better hands” with Serra.

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“Mr. Garcia Zarate is grateful to have been exonerated of murder, as he has no history of violence. He is also grateful to Tony Serra for taking his case,” Gonzalez said in a statement.

In an interview with reporters outside the courtroom Friday, San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi called the case a “tremendous tragedy” that has been compounded by “a president and attorney general who are really spitting in the face of justice.”

Adachi called the federal charges a “vindictive prosecution.” He was joined by Serra, who promised to “vigorously” defend Garcia Zarate.

“This is retaliatory,” Serra said of the federal case. “Shame on the federal government. Shame on the Trump administration.”

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(Los Angeles Times staff writers Alene Tchekmedyian and Brittny Mejia contributed to this report.)

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© 2018 Los Angeles Times

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.