A federal judge in San Francisco on Wednesday ordered a new mental health evaluation of a Mexican man acquitted of murder in the 2015 fatal shooting of a woman on a city pier, a killing that became a national flashpoint over immigration.
A separate case against Jose Ines Garcia Zarate on federal gun charges has been pending since 2017. U.S. District Court Judge Vince Chhabria raised “serious concerns” about his mental capacities last year.
Chhabria said in a court order that the Bureau of Prisons informed him in June that “it had restored the defendant to competency.” But he questioned whether Garcia-Zarate was mentally competent after the Mexican immigrant was unwilling to follow his attorney’s advice to plead not guilty during a hearing Monday.
Garcia-Zarate had been deported five times and was wanted for a sixth deportation proceeding when on July 1, 2015, he fatally shot 32-year-old Kate Steinle on a crowded San Francisco pier. He said he didn’t know a gun was in his hands because it was wrapped in a T-shirt when it fired and he dropped it almost immediately after picking it up.
The shooting turned into a major campaign issue across the country after then-presidential candidate Donald Trump started referring to it to bolster his argument for tougher immigration policies and his opposition to so-called sanctuary cities, which limit local cooperation with federal immigration authorities.
In late 2017, a San Francisco Superior Court jury acquitted Garcia Zarate of various charges including murder. But shortly after his acquittal, federal prosecutors charged him with two counts of illegal gun possession.
Two doctors have diagnosed Garcia Zarate with schizophrenia and found him unfit to stand trial because he cannot follow the court proceedings. They said he believes electronics are broadcasting messages to him and other inmates and that he believes his attorney is accepting bribes from the police.
Chabbria appointed Dr. Paul Elizondo, a San Francisco psychiatrist, to conduct the new evaluation and ordered the United States Marshals Service to ensure he receives all relevant medical records, including those showing whether Garcia Zarate was taking his medication while being transferred to a jail.