SAN FRANCISCO (AP and KTVU) - SAN FRANCISCO (Amber Lee/KTVU and Paul Elias/AP) -- A jury on Thursday found a Mexican man not guilty in the killing of a woman on a San Francisco pier that touched off a fierce national immigration debate two years ago, rejecting possible charges ranging from involuntary manslaughter to first-degree murder.
Jurors did find him guilty of being a felon in possession of a firearm, meaning he knowingly had a firearm but there was no intent for him to hurt or shoot anyone. That one count carries a potential sentence of 16 months to three years behind bars.
"The verdict that came in today was not one we were hoping for, but it's unequivocal that both sides gave it their all," Alex Bastian, spokesman for the San Francisco District Attorney's Office, said of the acquittal of Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, an undocumented immigrant acquitted of the most serious charges.
The victorious Assistant Public Defender Matt Gonzalez, who had argued that the shooting was accidental, countered outside court: "The verdict should be respected. They heard the evidence. They deliberated as a group. They heard read back testimony. They looked at the physical evidence and they rendered a verdict to the best of their ability."
Then Gonzalez quickly added: "I hope they do not interpret this verdict as diminishing in any way the awful tragedy that occurred that their family suffered."
Defense attorney Francisco Ugarte added: "From Day 1 this case was used as a means to foment hate, to foment division and to foment a program of mass deportation. It was used to catapult a presidency along that philosophy of hate of others. I believe today is a day of vindication for the rest of immigrants."
As for the defendant, it was hard to tell how he felt, according to Lina Pritchard, Garcia Zarate's court translator. "His reaction was very blank. He seemed to have a little resemblance to happiness...relief. He was very difficult to read," she said. "I was surprised. I didn't think it would totally, that he would be totally free of murder. Second degree or involuntary, I thought something was going to be coming his way."
The shooting of Kate Steinle came during the presidential primary campaign in 2015 and was used by then-candidate Donald Trump to push for a wall on the Mexican border.
As president, Trump called the verdict "disgraceful" on Twitter late Thursday. "No wonder the people of our Country are so angry with Illegal Immigration," Trump wrote.
Garcia Zarate had been deported five times and was wanted for a sixth deportation when Steinle was fatally shot in the back while walking with her father on the pier.
The case spotlighted San Francisco's "sanctuary city" policy, which limits local officials from cooperating with U.S. immigration authorities.
Politics, however, did not come up in the month-long trial that featured extensive testimony from ballistics experts. Defense attorneys argued that Garcia Zarate was a hapless homeless man who killed Steinle in a freak accident. Prosecutors said he meant to shoot and kill her.
Garcia Zarate did not deny shooting Steinle and said it was an accident.
The Steinle family chose not to attend the hearing. But Kate's father, Jim Steinle, told the San Francisco Chronicle the family was saddened and shocked by the verdict.
"There's no other way you can coin it. Justice was rendered, but it was not served," he said in what he called the last interview he would do about the case.
Before the shooting, Garcia Zarate finished a federal prison sentence for illegal re-entry into the United States and had been transferred to San Francisco's jail in March 2015 to face a 20-year-old charge for selling marijuana.
The sheriff's department released him a few days later after prosecutors dropped the marijuana charge, despite a request from federal immigration officials to detain him for deportation.
The Trump administration has sought to punish sanctuary cities through a series of legal actions, including an executive order to withhold funding, but a federal judge recently blocked it in a lawsuit from two California counties, San Francisco and Santa Clara. The administration has appealed.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement Thursday that San Francisco's decision to release Garcia Zarate led to Steinle's death.
"The Department of Justice will continue to ensure that all jurisdictions place the safety and security of their communities above the convenience of criminal aliens," Sessions said. "I urge the leaders of the nation's communities to reflect on the outcome of this case and consider carefully the harm they are doing to their citizens by refusing to cooperate with federal law enforcement officers."
U.S. immigration officials say they will deport Mexican man found not guilty of murder in San Francisco pier shooting.