Undocumented convict awaits trial in San Francisco slaying
At the time of the shooting, Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez had been recently released from jail despite a request by immigration officials to keep him behind bars
By Paul Elias
SAN FRANCISCO — It's been two years since a woman was randomly gunned down on a busy San Francisco pier in a shooting that set off a fierce national immigration debate.
But the man accused of killing Kate Steinle is still waiting for his murder trial to be scheduled.
Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, 54, was arrested shortly after the July 1, 2015, slaying that cast a spotlight on so-called sanctuary cities like San Francisco, which do not cooperate with federal immigration authorities seeking help deporting inmates in the country illegally.
At the time of the shooting, Lopez-Sanchez had been convicted five times for illegal re-entry into the United States and had been recently released from the San Francisco jail despite a request by immigration officials to keep him behind bars.
City lawyers argued that the sheriff was following San Francisco's sanctuary city law when he ignored a request from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hold Lopez-Sanchez for possible deportation.
Lopez-Sanchez pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder and two other felony charges in late 2015.
The San Francisco district attorney's office says much of the delay in trial is due to the suspect giving up his right to a speedy trial. Many other suspects in San Francisco's court system haven't waived that right and are demanding trials within 60 days of charges being filed, district attorney spokesman Alex Bastian said. They have priority to San Francisco's limited courtrooms, he said.
Bastian also said murder cases are complicated and require more preparation than other criminal cases. A San Francisco jury, for instance, convicted a man of two counts of murder on July 7, four years after his arrest.
"We want to get it right," Bastian said.
Lopez-Sanchez is due in court Friday when a trial date may be set, depending on the availability of a courtroom and judge.
Jim Steinle and Liz Sullivan, the victim's parents, declined comment Thursday through their attorney Frank Pitre.
In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in July 2015, Jim Steinle blamed "disjointed laws" and "basic incompetence on many levels" for his daughter's death.
"Our family realizes the complexity of immigration laws. However, we feel strongly that some legislation should be discussed, enacted or changed to take these undocumented felons off our streets for good," Steinle told the committee.
President Donald Trump used the shooting during his campaign for the presidency to highlight his tough stance on illegal immigration, referring frequently to Steinle's death. Days after the shooting, Trump called Steinle's death a "senseless and totally preventable act of violence" and was "yet another example of why we must secure our border."
Last month, at the urging of Trump, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill known as "Kate's Law" that would impose harsher prison sentences on deportees who re-enter the United States.
The house also passed another bill that would bar federal grants to sanctuary cities and allow victims of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants to sue those cities. Both bills await action in the Senate.
A federal judge in May tossed out a wrongful death lawsuit Steinle's family filed against San Francisco for releasing Lopez-Sanchez from jail after local marijuana possession charges were dropped.
Lopez-Sanchez has given police various accounts of what happened, saying at one point that was aiming the gun at a seal. At his preliminary hearing, his lawyer said Lopez-Sanchez was holding the gun while sitting on a bench on the pier when it accidentally fired.
He told police he found the gun wrapped in a T-shirt underneath the bench shortly before Steinle was shot. The .40-caliber SIG Sauer P226 handgun was stolen a few days earlier from the car of a Bureau of Land Management agent.
Lopez-Sanchez's attorney, Matt Gonzalez, didn't respond to a phone call or email message Thursday. Previously, Gonzalez said his client fled extreme poverty in his native Mexico, has only a second-grade education and was homeless at the time of his arrest.
Both sides are expected to call gun experts to the stand, testimony that legal analysts say takes time to set up.
Daniel Horowitz, a veteran San Francisco Bay Area criminal defense attorney with no connection to the case, said complex cases take time to complete in urban courthouses.
"It's actually a normal time for a murder trial in a very busy courthouse," Horowitz said. "It's a difficult case for both sides."
Stanford University law professor Robert Weisberg disagreed.
"Two years is an exceptionally, exceptionally long time," he said, adding it could be in the suspect's interest to drag out the proceedings because the "guy may have nothing to lose. ... He's unlikely to ever see the light of day whatever happens."