The thing about juries is that they are unpredictable. Many trial attorneys consider them to be the key to the eventual verdict. Some even go so far as to claim that many trials are won or lost before they even begin based on the composition of the jury. Jury consultants earn considerable fees for their expertise in jury selection. The hit tv series, Bull, is based on such a character. When all is said and done, however, no one can predict a jury’s decision, and one can be hard-pressed to explain it afterwards. Such was the case in the Steinle verdict.
The US constitution mandates that one be tried by a jury of his or her “peers.” True in the legal sense, but not necessarily true in the real world. In the real world, each juror comes with his or her own set of preconceived opinions and prejudices. They are completely different from each other and the defendant. For example, how and where would one find 12 “peers” of a billionaire businessman, a famous celebrity or, as in this case, an illegal immigrant? Not happening in the literal sense, but we do the best we can. The judicial system, though imperfect, is what it is.
The other major variables are the venue and the individual judge. The venue determines the composition of the jury pool. For example, in the infamous OJ murder trial, most objective observers believe that had the trial been held elsewhere, say, in Brentwood, the verdict would have been different. Individual judges are supposed to be impartial, but they are human. Each has his or her own set of prejudices and opinions, just like the rest of us.
In the Steinle murder trial, Judge Samuel Feng had to weigh the probative value of Zarate’s immigration and criminal history against its potential to prejudice the jury. As we all know, this is a classic dilemma for a trial judge, who generally has wide latitude in these matters. Feng ruled Zarate’s entire immigration and criminal history to be inadmissible. I would think that those things were pretty significant factors of which the jury needed to be apprised in order to render a just decision. But, apparently, Feng disagreed.
I believe that was the most crucial ruling of the entire trial and greatly affected the outcome. Outside the courtroom in the eyes of the public the trial became a referendum on illegal immigration and the role of sanctuary cities. At the moment, these are very controversial and sensitive issues with significant social, legal, economic and political overtones. Inside the courtroom, on the other hand, the trial became solely about whether or not Zarate had “accidentally” fired a pistol he just “found” under a park bench.
Despite the incredulity of his story, the jury of his so-called “peers” believed it and acquitted him of both murder and manslaughter. It only convicted him of felony possession of a weapon. Most of the country was shocked, dismayed, and irate. In retrospect, however, given the venue and Feng’s rulings it should not have come as much of a surprise. Personally, I don’t see how any reasonably intelligent person could believe that story unless he had a preconceived bias, but I wasn’t on the jury.
The crime, itself, was pretty straightforward. In July 2015 Kate Steinle and her father, Jim, were out for a pleasant stroll on a San Francisco pier. Garcia Zarate, a homeless, illegal alien from Mexico with a felonious criminal record, who had been deported five times and re-entered illegally each time, began firing a pistol indiscriminately. (Zarate had recently been released from jail despite the fact that ICE had requested the City of San Francisco to hold him for them for deportation. As a sanctuary city, SF authorities defiantly declined to do so, in clear violation of federal law.)
Zarate claimed he had found the gun under a park bench. The pistol had been stolen from an officer’s car. Did he find it or steal it? No one knows. In any event, one of the bullets ricocheted off the sidewalk and hit Steinle. She died in her father’s arms. Her last words were “Help me, dad.” Tragic, and unnecessary. It is hard to imagine anything worse for a parent than your child dying in your arms and you being helpless to do anything about it.
Reaction to the verdict was swift and predictable. Some examples:
- President Trump tweeted that the verdict was “disgraceful.”
- Tom Horman, acting director of ICE, said he was “stunned” and “sickened.”
- Fox News anchor Gregg Jarrett opined “If you are inclined to commit a heinous crime, San Francisco is the place for you.”
- The San Francisco Chronicle intoned “justice is not served” and denoted that Zarate “could be released on the streets today.”
- CNN covered the verdict moderately but soon as soon as the story about General Michael Flynn’s pleading guilty to lying to the FBI broke, it focused on it.
- MSNBC allocated some two minutes to the story over a two-day period.
- UC Hastings law professor Hadar Aviram called it a “triumph” for our judicial system.
- Finally, Jim Steinle put it succinctly and accurately: “Justice was rendered, but it was not served.”
In my opinion, like it or not, in the eyes of the public this verdict, rendered in ultra-liberal SF, has become and will continue to be viewed as a referendum on illegal immigration and sanctuary cities. It solidifies the impression that most Dems are in favor of very liberal immigration policies, if not outright open borders. Remember, it was Congressional Dems who “killed” the passage of “Kate’s Law,” which was meant to preclude murders of this type, prospectively. Going forward, every time an illegal alien commits a violent crime, they will “own” it. The GOP, on the other hand, has staked out the more reasonable position of securing our borders and denying sanctuary to illegal aliens who have been convicted of a felony.
I believe the Dems’ motivation for shamelessly kowtowing to Hispanics in this manner is to gain their loyalty and their votes. Sometimes, it appears that Dem politicians favor the rights of illegal immigrants over those of US citizens. But, I think that strategy is ill-advised and will backfire. After all, one of the main reasons Donald Trump was elected was his tough stance on immigration and secure borders. I predict this will be a major issue in the 2018 and 2020 elections to the detriment of the Dems.