A week ago, a San Francisco jury acquitted Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, an undocumented immigrant, of murder in the death of Kate Steinle, which took place on July 1, 2015. The defense argued that Garcia Zarate happened upon the gun, which accidentally fired while pointed at the ground, causing the bullet to ricochet and hit Steinle in the back. President Trump has responded to the verdict with inflammatory and dangerous rhetoric, challenging key elements of our justice system and our democracy.
Trump has frequently used the Garcia Zarate case as an example of the dangers posed by “illegals.” In a 2015 interview with CNN, he called Garcia Zarate an “animal” and accused Mexico of sending him back across the border in a deliberate attempt to send Mexican criminals into the United States. As a presidential candidate, he used the incident to defend his anti-immigrant rhetoric, stating, “Beautiful Kate in San Francisco was shot by an illegal who was here five times and they couldn’t do anything about it. And believe me Mexico kept pushing him back because they didn’t want him, believe me, that’s true. And now everybody is saying that Trump was right.”
After the verdict was released, Trump quickly sent out a tweet calling the verdict “disgraceful.” Several hours later, he sent two more tweets, blaming Obama, Chuck Schumer, and Nancy Pelosi’s policies for Garcia Zarate’s presence in the country and calling the jury’s decision “a complete travesty of justice.” He also pointed out the fact that the jury “was not told the killer of Kate was a 7 time felon.”
Trump’s statements are troubling for several reasons. First, the tweets are politically divisive and inflammatory, placing blame on Democratic leadership and claiming the country is “so angry with Illegal Immigration.” Such divisive rhetoric is dangerous, increasing the chasm between the left and the right and making it more difficult for our democracy to function. When these statements are coming from the highest level of American government, their impact is even more alarming.
Second, by complaining that the jury was not told of Garcia Zarate’s previous convictions, Trump demonstrates a complete ignorance of the basic rules of evidence and of the case itself, with the effect of undermining the public’s confidence in the legal system. First, while the jury did not hear Garcia Zarate’s full record, he was found guilty of being a felon in possession of a firearm, which means the jury was aware of at least one prior felony conviction. Second, per FRE 404(b)(1), “Evidence of a crime, wrong, or other act is not admissible to prove a person’s character in order to show that on a particular occasion the person acted in accordance with the character.” In other words, a foundational evidentiary rule barred the prosecution from using prior convictions as evidence that the accused is guilty of the criminal acts before the jury.
There are exceptions to this rule, but – like many other rules of evidence – it generally functions to protect defendants from unfair prejudicial effects and to avoid confusion of the issue being tried. A hallmark of our justice system is manner in which the State and the defendant should – at least in theory – be on an equal and fair playing field. The Federal Rules of Evidence play a key role in maintaining this playing field. When the President of the United States is signaling that the rules are bad or irrelevant, it is harmful to the integrity of the system.
Third, Trump directly challenges the validity and merit of the jury’s decision, calling it “disgraceful” and “a complete travesty of justice.” The right to a jury trial is guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution. Trump is not the first person to criticize a jury verdict, nor is he the only one to criticize the jury’s decision in this particular case. Indeed, the right to speak critically of such things is enshrined in another amendment to the Constitution. However, these types of criticisms are more worrisome when they come from the President. When the President of the United States lays such harsh criticism on a jury verdict, it undermines and delegitimizes the central role played by ordinary citizens within our justice system.
Jose Ines Garcia Zarate is not a model immigrant. He entered the United States illegally, had been deported five times, and had a criminal record. He was at least tangentially responsible for the death of Kate Steinle. He isn’t the sympathetic immigrant usually held up as an example to defend more liberal immigration policies. That doesn’t make him any less deserving of due process.
In the United States, criminal defendants are considered innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. No matter how checkered their background, no matter how heinous the crime, defendants are entitled to certain rights and protections in a fair judicial process. These protections apply to everyone – not just those deemed most worthy. For the President to signal otherwise disrespects the basic rights and pillars of our democracy.