Op Ed

Trump Undermines U.S. Justice System

After undocumented immigrant he called an “animal” is found innocent, he attacks jury verdict.

By - Dec 4th, 2017 03:28 pm
Donald Trump. Photo from whitehouse.gov.

Donald Trump. Photo from whitehouse.gov.

Throughout President Donald Trump’s campaign and into his presidency, Trump consistently invoked the tragic death of Kate Steinle to push his immigration agenda. Trump deemed the undocumented immigrant who had been charged in her death, but not convicted, a murderer and called him an “animal.”

Kate Steinle was killed in 2015 while walking on a crowded pier in California when a gun Juan Francisco López-Sánchez (given name José Inez García Zárate) had in his possession went off, hitting Steinle. Prosecutors alleged Zárate intentionally shot Steinle. But the defense maintained Zárate was innocent of murder.

At trial, Zárate’s lawyer argued the death of Steinle was a tragic, freak accident, occurring when the gun Zárate found on the pier accidentally discharged.

The trial featured extensive testimony from ballistics experts, with the defense arguing the bullet ricocheted off the ground and traveled about 80 feet before hitting Steinle.

No motive was ever established to explain why the hapless, homeless Zárate would have any intent to kill Steinle. Steinle and Zárate never knew one another.

And on Thursday night, a jury of 12 peers who heard all of the evidence in the case and who deliberated for six long days, unanimously concluded Zárate was not guilty of first-degree murder, not guilty of second-degree murder and not guilty of involuntary manslaughter. The only charge the jury convicted Zárate of was being a felon in possession of a firearm.

While the case was pending, Kate Steinle’s father, Jim Steinle, urged politicians to stop using his daughter’s death in the immigration debate. In a San Francisco Chronicle article titled “Leave Kate Steinle’s name out of the immigration debate,” Jim Steinle was quoted as saying, “I don’t know who coined ‘Kate’s Law,’” the bill aimed at mandatory minimum sentences for undocumented immigrants who re-enter the U.S. Brad Steinle, Kate’s brother, told CNN that Trump “sensationalize[d] the death” of his sister.

But even after Zárate was acquitted of the murder that Trump had been so confident Zárate committed, Trump continued to use Kate Steinle’s death to push a political agenda on illegal immigration. Trump tweeted: “A disgraceful verdict in the Kate Steinle case! No wonder the people of our Country are so angry with Illegal Immigration.”

Trump tried to convict Zárate in the court of public opinion, without any substantive explanation of the facts of the case and without hearing any of the trial testimony and evidence.

We have much to be proud of regarding our criminal justice system in the United States. Unlike in our legal system, many totalitarian regimes reject the presumption of innocence and due process. Our jury system is a proud tradition that demonstrates the founders’ innate trust in a jury of one’s peers to render judgment.

Our system is emulated and respected by people in other countries all over the world because we offer freedoms and constitutional rights to people accused of crimes that others can only dream of — the right to remain silent, the presumption of innocence, the jury system, making the prosecution prove a person’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt before he can be convicted, and many more.

While some in the media decried the “stunning verdict” in Steinle’s death, reports on the actual evidence presented at trial indicate the verdict was not stunning at all. But if all a person heard was a politician refer to the accused as a murderer, then it may well have been “stunning” to that person when the 12 people who actually heard all of the evidence and testimony acquitted the accused of murder.

The death of Kate Steinle was unimaginably tragic. It is impossible to know the pain and agony her family must have felt and will feel for the rest of their lives. Kate Steinle was, by all accounts, an incredible woman. One hopes her family can find some measure of peace in this lifetime.

And while the president may have succeeded in using Kate Steinle’s death to demonize undocumented immigrants, we are fortunate to live in a country where even the most powerful man in the world could not break the Constitutional guarantees and the rights of people accused of crimes, as established by our Founding Fathers. The presumption of innocence did not fail.

Politicians should heed the wishes of Kate Steinle’s family and stop using her death as a political tool in the immigration debate. God rest her soul.

This op ed was originally published by the Sheboygan Press.

Casey Hoff is a criminal defense attorney based in Sheboygan.

2 thoughts on “Op Ed: Trump Undermines U.S. Justice System”

  1. Frank Schneiger says:

    Whoever you are, there is always a great danger in falling into the “We’re #1 trap.” American exceptionalism is a particularly potent version of that trap, and Casey Hoff falls into it. In the immediate instance, while warning about Trump’s latest outrage, he states that “our system is emulated and respected by people all over the world…..” Well, not exactly. According to the respected Rule of Law Index, the United States ranks 18th in the world, with particularly serious deficiencies when it comes to finding justice for poor people.

    Then, there is the bigger picture of a country that often lives in denial because of American exceptionalism, the belief that the experiences, risks and dangers that plague others don’t apply here. It’s not true, and the undermining of the judiciary by Trump, the Republican Party, their donors and supporters is just part of a much larger picture.

    Here is a question: which of the following apply to the United States in the age of Trump, his team and his fans?
    (1) “a sense of overwhelming crisis beyond the reach of any traditional solution
    (2) “The primacy of the group,” in this case the white race, along with the rich
    (3) “The belief that one’s group is a victim, a sentiment that justifies any action….”
    (4) “Dread of the group’s decline under the corrosive effects of individualistic liberalism, class conflict, and alien influences.”
    (5) “The need for closer integration of the purer community….”
    (6) “The need for authority by natural chiefs (always male), culminating in a national chieftain who alone is capable of incarnating the group’s historical destiny.”
    (7) “The superiority of the leader’s instincts over abstract and universal reason.”
    (8) “The beauty of violence and the efficacy of will when they are devoted to the group’s success.”
    (9) “The right of the chosen people to dominate others without restraint…within a Darwinian struggle.”

    These nine points are the answer to a fundamental question posed by Robert O.Paxton in his book “The Anatomy of Fascism.” (2004, pages 218-220) The question: “What is Fascism?” The notion that “it can’t happen here” is nonsense, and it is useful to remember that it is only after calamity and collapse that those in the large minority that supported everything claim that they were against it all along, were misled by Fox News or its equivalents, or didn’t know what was going on.

  2. John Casper says:

    Frank, many thanks.

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