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Tourist Captured Photos of Suspect, Victim in Pier Killing

Garcia Zarate, 54, has acknowledged shooting Steinle in the back, but said the shooting was accidental

A tourist visiting a popular San Francisco pier two years ago snapped three quick photographs that turned out to be key pieces of evidence in the high-profile murder trial of a homeless Mexican man charged with killing a Bay Area woman.

The witness' photographs captured Jose Ines Garcia Zarate sitting on a seat on the pier and the back of Kate Steinle several yards away moments before she was shot on July 1, 2015. They were displayed to the jury Tuesday during the second day of Garcia Zarate's trial.

In an exclusive interview with NBC Bay Area's Raj Mathai in 2015, Kate Steinle's father describes how his daughter died in his arms, and her mother recalls how they spoke every night.

Steinle's death sparked debate over immigration and so-called sanctuary city policies because the man charged with her murder was deported to Mexico five times before the shooting.

The witness, Michelle Lo, testified that as she walked onto the pier she noticed Garcia Zarate because he was spinning around in the chair, which was built to revolve. She did not look long at him but testified he made her feel uncomfortable.

Lo, who lawyers said lived on the East Coast but didn't specify the city, testified with the aid of Cantonese interpreter.

"I did not pay special attention to him," Lo said, adding that Garcia Zarate caught her eye because "the chair was spinning and I saw him."

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The handgun fired in the killing belonged to a U.S. Bureau of Land Management ranger who reported that it had been stolen from his parked car in San Francisco a week before Steinle was shot.

Garcia Zarate, 54, has acknowledged shooting Steinle in the back, but said the shooting was accidental and that he was handling the handgun when it accidentally fired.

He is charged with second-degree murder and faces a sentence of 15 years to life in prison if convicted.

Two other witnesses, roommates from the Central Valley who traveled to San Francisco to escape the heat on a summer day, got a window view to the immediate aftermath of the deadly shooting.

Maria Moreno, a third grade teacher, and her roommate Aryn Carpenter, rented a room at the Hotel Griffon on July 1, 2015. The hotel is directly across the street from Pier 14. Both Moreno and Carpenter testified they heard a loud bang that they thought came from a gun, followed by a scream that "sounded like something you would hear in a horror film."

They rushed to the window and saw people clustered around a body, people confused and calling for help, according to testimony. They also saw a man exiting the scene, and he fit the description of the defendant.

The women said he was "the only person who seemed to be leaving," and they thought it was odd.

Garcia Zarate was homeless in San Francisco when he shot Steinle. He had recently completed a prison sentence for illegal re-entry to the U.S. when he was transferred to the San Francisco County jail to face a 20-year-old marijuana charge.

Prosecutors dropped that charge, and the San Francisco sheriff released Garcia Zarate from jail despite a federal immigration request to detain him for at least two more days for deportation.

The sheriff's department said it was following the city's sanctuary policy of limited cooperation with federal immigration authorities.

President Donald Trump frequently cited the case to highlight problems with U.S. immigration policy during the presidential race last year.

Since being elected, Trump has threatened to withhold federal funding to so-called sanctuary cities such as San Francisco, several of which have filed lawsuits to prevent the move.

The judge has prohibited mention of the politics of immigration and gun control during the trial that is expected to last several weeks.

Garcia Zarate went by the name Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez when he was arrested. But Gonzalez said he now prefers to be called by his birth name of Garcia Zarate.

NBC Bay Area's Sam Brock contributed to this report.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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