By Alex Emslie
Was Kathryn Steinle’s accused killer Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez “playing his own game of Russian Roulette” as he sat spinning in a metallic chair on San Francisco’s Pier 14, or was the July 1 shooting of the 31-year-old woman a “freak accident” at the hands of a destitute homeless man investigating an unknown object he found wrapped in cloth on the pier?
San Francisco Superior Court Judge Brendan Conroy ruled Friday that there is sufficient evidence to let a jury decide whether Lopez-Sanchez is guilty of second-degree murder. The shooting has sparked a national debate on immigration enforcement, but those politics are not in play at Lopez-Sanchez’s criminal proceedings, which have focused on whether he intended to shoot someone or instead fired accidentally.
Prosecutor Diana Garcia reiterated to the court Friday morning that Lopez-Sanchez “knew he had a gun. He described it to police as a semi-automatic. He said he intentionally fired it once.”
She referenced a photo taken at 6:24 p.m. July 1 appearing to show Lopez-Sanchez facing where Steinle would be fatally wounded approximately six minutes later.
“He’s already pegged his target,” Garcia said. “He has a 360-degree choice of where to fire the gun.”
“This was no accident,” she added. “There were people all around him. … Intentionally firing that gun anywhere in that area was an act that was dangerous to human life.”
Lopez-Sanchez’s lead defense counsel, San Francisco public defender’s Chief Attorney Matt Gonzalez, has argued since he first learned of the case that the shooting seemed accidental, which would make an involuntary manslaughter charge more appropriate.
He said evidence brought out during Lopez-Sanchez’s weeklong preliminary hearing only bolstered that theory. He cited testimony from ballistics experts that the single shot ricocheted off the concrete pier about 12 feet in front of Lopez, then traveled another 78 feet before hitting Steinle.
Gonzalez said that the prosecution is relying on one of two theories that could breach the threshold of proof for a second-degree murder conviction: Either Lopez-Sanchez intentionally targeted Steinle and wanted to kill her, or he was so reckless that he should have known his behavior was likely to kill someone.
“It’s far more likely to be a complete accident,” Gonzalez said, presenting a theory that Lopez-Sanchez discovered an unknown heavy object wrapped in a T-shirt while he was sitting on the pier, and the .40-caliber SIG Sauer P239 handgun went off as he was unwrapping it. Gonzalez described the gun as having no safety.
A firearms expert, speaking not for attribution, said the handgun doesn’t have a traditional safety, with an on and off position. But if the gun is not cocked, it would take 10 to 20 pounds of pressure to fire it, versus 4 to 5 pounds of pressure if it’s in the cocked position.
Gonzalez said it makes sense that Lopez-Sanchez would pick up and unwrap a bundle others wouldn’t touch.
“He has nothing,” Gonzalez said. “He’s got cracker crumbs in his pocket and some cigarette butts. He’s going to look at things that are discarded that you and I are going to walk right by. … He’s actually the one person on that pier that would have looked at an item discarded on the ground or covered up or wrapped up in something.”
Earlier this week, Steinle’s family filed three civil claims over their daughter’s death. They’re pursuing legal action against Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department for failing to deport Lopez-Sanchez prior to his release from San Francisco County Jail in April.
They are also suing the federal Bureau of Land Management, alleging a ranger failed to properly secure the handgun when it was stolen from his car parked in San Francisco four days before Steinle was shot.
His defense team said there is no evidence Lopez-Sanchez stole the gun or ever had possession of it before the evening of July 1.
“He’s never committed a theft; that’s not who he is,” Gonzalez said. “He has nothing. If he found this gun, if somebody gave him this gun, well, what would he do with it? He would probably try to trade it for something or sell it, or who knows what? But there’s no evidence that there was ever an effort to commit a crime with it. There’s no evidence that he ever showed it to anybody, that he tried to offer it for sale.”
Prosecutor Garcia didn’t dwell on how Lopez-Sanchez may have gained possession of the gun.
“He had in his hands an instrument of death, and he chose to use it,” she told the judge. “He took the life of a young, vibrant, cherished woman.”
Gonzalez said a second-degree murder conviction would likely result in a sentence of 43 years to life for Lopez-Sanchez. That’s 15 years to life, plus a 25-year gun enhancement, and three years for Lopez-Sanchez’s prior nonviolent convictions.
An involuntary manslaughter conviction, which a jury will still be allowed to consider, would carry a base sentence of four, five or six years, depending on aggravating and mitigating circumstances. Then add 10 years for a gun enhancement, plus three prison priors, and an involuntary manslaughter conviction could carry a term of 15, 17 or 19 years, Gonzalez said.
“We’re very confident that there’s sufficient evidence to prove the crime, and we look forward to trial and providing justice ultimately for Kate and her family,” district attorney spokesman Max Szabo said after the hearing.
Lopez-Sanchez is scheduled to be back in court Sept. 18 for a procedural hearing. His jury trial has not yet been scheduled.