A Mexican national who has been deported multiple times for illegally entering the United States pleaded not guilty to a murder charge Tuesday in the shooting death of Kathryn Steinle, who was strolling on the tourist-friendly Embarcadero with her father last week when she was shot once in the back.
Later Tuesday, law enforcement sources confirmed that the gun used in the shooting belonged to a federal agent, but no details were available about how the suspect may have obtained the weapon, or whether it had been lost or stolen.
In a weekend interview with KGO-TV, which on Tuesday first reported the gun’s connection to the federal agent, Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez said he had found the weapon wrapped in a T-shirt on the ground near a bench, and that it had accidentally fired when he touched it.
But he also said he had taken strong sleeping pills and his memory was murky.
The district attorney’s office declined to comment on the gun.
In San Francisco Superior Court on Tuesday, Lopez-Sanchez stood with slumped shoulders next to a Spanish-language interpreter and pleaded not guilty to the single murder charge with firearm enhancements.
Steinle’s uncle, who declined to give his name, had paced in the hallway before the arraignment, appalled by the spectacle of so many reporters and TV cameras.
The killing has spurred outrage nationwide among critics of immigration policy, but both a district attorney spokesman and the family of Kathryn Steinle on Tuesday sought to refocus the attention on the victim.
“This isn’t about immigration,” Steinle’s uncle said. “This is about someone taking my niece’s life.”
Steinle had recently moved to San Francisco for a job from the East Bay suburb of Pleasanton. Her father “was just taking her out to dinner” when she was struck by a bullet in the back, her uncle said.
San Francisco is among a number of counties and a handful of states that do not honor many requests by immigration authorities to hold inmates beyond their release date in order to hand them over for deportation. In this case, a request by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that it be notified of his release date went unheeded.
Lopez-Sanchez, 52, was released in April when 20-year-old charges against him were dismissed. He apparently was homeless when he was arrested in connection with Steinle’s shooting.
Asked by Superior Court Judge Daniel Flores if he understood that he had waived his right to a preliminary hearing within 10 days, he answered clearly, “Si señor.” But when Flores later tried to explain to him that his attorneys said he did not need to be present at a legal hearing July 22, he seemed confused, repeatedly saying, “No soy culpable,” or “I am not guilty.”
Assistant Dist. Atty. Diana Garcia initially sought no bail for Lopez-Sanchez and then argued for $10 million, saying the defendant “found the gun before firing it at close range and hitting the victim in the back.”
Lopez-Sanchez is itinerant with no resources and can’t post any bail amount, but his attorney, San Francisco Public Defender Chief Atty. Matt Gonzalez, argued that it should be lowered.
“This is not a defendant with a history of violence,” he said. “He comes before the court in what appears to be a case of a single shot fired.”
He added that from the evidence available so far, “it’s very likely this was an accidental shooting,” that Lopez-Sanchez did not know Steinle and that the shooting did not occur during the commission of a crime such as a robbery or assault.
The judge set bail at $5 million.
Outside court, district attorney spokesman Alex Bastian said the evidence supports a charge that Lopez-Sanchez intentionally killed Steinle “with malice aforethought” but declined to elaborate.
Lopez-Sanchez has multiple convictions for felony and misdemeanor drug offenses and criminal reentry to the U.S. after being deported.
He had finished serving his sentence on one of those convictions in a Victorville facility in March when, rather than turn him over to ICE as requested, the Bureau of Prisons discovered the two-decade-old bench warrant on a case involving a $20 marijuana sale and brought him to San Francisco.
The city passed an ordinance in 2013 that bars the Sheriff’s Department from holding inmates for ICE beyond their release date unless certain conditions are met. Lopez-Sanchez did not meet those conditions, but San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi also confirmed Tuesday that his department has not honored any immigration “detainer” requests from ICE in a year.
The case has spurred political backlash.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump was the first to lambaste the San Francisco County sheriff’s office for its approach to immigration detainers.
Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Rodham Clinton weighed in, too, though she misstated the role that cities play in deportation. Federal immigration authorities ask local jails to hold certain immigrants until they can pick them up for possible deportation.
In an interview on CNN, Clinton said, “What should be done is any city should listen to the Department of Homeland Security, which as I understand it, urged them to deport this man again after he got out of prison another time.”
“The city made a mistake not to deport someone that the federal government strongly felt should be deported,” Clinton said.
U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) called for a review of detention policies.
“For decades, I have supported deporting violent criminals, and I have always believed that sanctuary should not be given to felons,” she said in a statement. “I have reached out to Gov. Brown to ask whether state law was followed in this case, and if so, whether the law needs to be strengthened to ensure that a tragedy like this never happens again.”
Under California’s Trust Act, Lopez-Sanchez could have been held for immigration officials, but San Francisco is among the jurisdictions that have adopted more stringent policies.
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