The Kate Steinle case: What the media can learn from the justice system
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The Kate Steinle case: What the media can learn from the justice system

October 24, 2017

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

Trial begins for case of woman killed on San Francisco pier in 2015

Opening arguments began on Monday in the trial of Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, 54, who is accused of murdering Kate Steinle, 32, on a San Francisco pier on July 1, 2015. The defendant says he shot Steinle accidentally and pleaded not guilty to murder during his arraignment. He is charged with second-degree murder, which can carry a sentence of 15 years to life in prison.  

The prosecutor, Diana Garcia, argued that the defendant deliberately concealed and fired the weapon at people. She said video evidence from a fire station shows Steinle falling to the ground and a splash of water nearby, which she attributed to Garcia Zarate throwing the gun in the ocean. Steinle had been walking with her father on the pier when she was shot in the back and the bullet pierced her aorta.

Defense attorney Matt Gonzalez said the gun “discharged,” the bullet ricocheted and then struck Steinle from 78 feet away. He said he would call experts to say the 40-caliber Sig Sauer pistol is known to accidentally discharge. Garcia Zarate said he found the gun wrapped in a t-shirt under a bench. He had been homeless and sleeping on the street.

The gun had been stolen from the car of a U.S. Bureau of Land Management ranger four days prior to the shooting. No person has been arrested for the theft.

Garcia Zarate, who was arrested under the name Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez and now goes by his birth name Zarate, illegally immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico. He had been deported from the U.S. five times, and has an arrest record for non-violent crimes. Prior to the shooting, he had served 46 months in prison for unauthorized entry into the U.S., a felony charge. He was transferred to a San Francisco jail in March 2015 on a warrant from 1995 related to marijuana-related charges, which were later dropped.

The San Francisco Sheriff’s Department released Garcia Zarate from jail, in accordance with the city’s so-called “sanctuary city” policy to not hold immigrants for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) authorities unless they have a violent crime record, or if a judge has approved of the hold or warrant. At the time, federal immigration authorities requested that he be detained for two more days.

The Steinle case in politics

Two days after Steinle’s death, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump tweeted about the case, arguing that Steinle would not have been killed if immigration laws were upheld and cited it as an “example of why we must secure our border immediately.” In July, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions argued that she would not have been killed “if her killer had been imprisoned or deported as he should have been,” since he was an illegal immigrant.

This summer, the House of Representatives passed a bill, so-called “Kate’s Law” named after Steinle. The law, if passed by the Senate, would increase the maximum sentence for immigrants repeatedly found entering the U.S. without authorization.

Distortion Highlights

  • There’s a lot the media can learn from our legal system, especially how not to bias public opinion.
  • The articles we analyzed on Steinle’s case tell two stories: one biases our views of the case, the other biases our understanding of violence.
  • See why both can limit critical thinking and what the media can do to improve its coverage.

Show Me Everything

The Numbers

See how the articles rate in spin, slant and logic when held against objective standards.

View Technical Sheet >

The Distortion

The Knife’s analysis of how news outlets distort information. (This section may contain opinion.)

Top Spin Words

  • National outrage

    Kate Steinle’s murder fueled national outrage and became a flashpoint in the divisive debate over the twin issues of illegal immigration and U.S. sanctuary cities, and now her accused killer is getting his day in court. (Fox News)

  • Political furor

    The shooting touched off a political furor during last year’s presidential race, with President Donald Trump citing Steinle’s death as a reason to toughen U.S. immigration policies. (AP)

  • Aggressively

    Critics of the bill say Kate’s Law would aggressively criminalize undocumented immigrants whose illegal presence in the country carries only civil, not criminal, penalties. (CNN)

  • Decrying

    Kate Steinle’s killing inspired an immigration bill while President Donald Trump and other Republicans have invoked her name in decrying sanctuary cities and promoting the construction of a border wall. (CNN)

  • Political firestorm

    The trial in front of Judge Samuel Feng opened to broad media and public interest fueled not so much by the central legal dispute in the case but the political firestorm that followed it. (SF Chronicle)

  • Stoked

    Murder trial starts for man who stoked US immigration debate (AP)

  • Stirred Controversy

    The case has stirred controversy over immigration policy because of two key details: Garcia Zarate was a convicted felon who’d been deported from the United States five times … (CNN)

  • Echoed

    Steinle’s name echoed in the halls of Congress this summer as the House of Representatives passed “Kate’s Law,” a measure named for her. (CNN)

While the U.S. justice system seeks to adhere to due process (which is fair treatment through the judicial system), the media often uses bias and sensationalism to sway the court of public opinion. Depending on the media’s portrayal of events, readers may prematurely decide someone’s innocence or guilt, often before a case has even gone to trial. Such is the case here.

The articles we analyzed on the Kate Steinle case presented two stories: the details of the trial, and the supposed issue of violent crime and immigrants in the U.S. See how the media bias in each can limit critical thinking and the way we approach such problems.

Biasing the Kate Steinle case

When reporting on the case itself, CNN implies Garcia Zarate is innocent, and doesn’t weigh the prosecution’s side equally in the article. Although the U.S. justice system operates under the principle of “innocent until proven guilty,” CNN biases readers by favoring the probability of his innocence.

By contrast, the other three outlets suggest Garcia Zarate is guilty. For example, Fox News’ article opens with “Kate Steinle’s murder …” The choice of the term “murder” (which implies intent) and the absence of a qualifier such as “alleged” introduce the idea that the suspect is guilty, before we’ve even read through to the end of Fox’s lead sentence.

Biasing an audience towards guilt (compared to innocence) is harder to correct, because it isn’t possible to “un-know” negative information once it’s introduced. This is one of the reasons why the justice system takes precautions to disallow certain types of witnesses or evidence, or why judges override lines of questioning that could negatively bias a jury or the proceedings.

When reporting on new or ongoing trials, only data-based and balanced coverage can minimize predisposing readers to a potential outcome. Bias, opinion and spin have a tendency to inspire prejudice and premature conclusions, and that’s why The Knife advocates separating them from the facts.

Biasing our understanding of violence

Like Trump and Sessions, some public officials in the U.S. claim there’s a correlation between immigration and violent crime. They argue that if the country expands its law enforcement and immigration policies enough to keep foreigners out, then it would help solve the problem of violent crime nationwide. Is this logical?

Let’s work it out: if immigrants were largely responsible for violent crimes in the U.S., then removing them would provide short-term and long-term relief. But that doesn’t follow, because violence could come from other sources or groups. It’s a similar reasoning to Session’s statement, which CNN included in its article:

“Her death was preventable — and it should have been prevented,” Sessions said. “She would still be alive today if her killer had been imprisoned or deported as he should have been.”

Deaths by violent crime cannot be prevented by eliminating any one group, because violence isn’t caused by immigration status, race, religion, gender or any other demographic marker (although these things are often used as justifications). As our Context section shows, research doesn’t provide clear evidence of correlations between these things and violence.

It’s limiting for politicians to promote this type of thinking, but the problem compounds when the media doesn’t correct it and instead propagates it through its coverage. The San Francisco Chronicle, The Associated Press and Fox introduced the notion that violence and immigration are correlated (sometimes as early as the headline) but none of them questioned its validity, and none of them provided data to back up the claim.

CNN’s article, on the other hand, could suggest there may be no correlation because the Trump administration is supposedly using the Steinle case to further its agenda as regards immigration and law enforcement policy. For instance, it wrote, “President Donald Trump and other Republicans have invoked her name in decrying sanctuary cities and promoting the construction of a border wall.” However, the outlet doesn’t provide readers with data that could debunk it.

In August, we covered a similar story in which politicians and the media drew a correlation between crime and sanctuary cities like Chicago. We found there was an absence of data supporting the correlation, and the same occurred here. (To read some of the data our researchers found on the subject, click here.) While relationships between violent crime and things like immigration exist and change over time, thinking there’s a causal relationship between these two issues can move us away from understanding and possibly solving the problem of violence.

Is it fact or fiction? Which outlet presents the most spin?

  • 26% Spun

  • 39% Spun

  • 40% Spun

  • 41% Spun


San Francisco Chronicle

“Anger at [then-Sheriff Ross] Mirkarimi’s decision to release the jailed Garcia Zarate about 10 weeks before the shooting contributed to his 2016 re-election defeat.”

The Sheriff’s Department released Garcia Zarate from jail, where he had been held on a 1995 marijuana arrest warrant. Mirkarimi lost his reelection bid for sheriff in 2016.

FOX News

“Steinle’s murder fueled national outrage and became a flashpoint in the divisive debate over the twin issues of illegal immigration and U.S. sanctuary cities, and now her accused killer is getting his day in court.”

During the presidential campaign, Trump spoke and tweeted about Steinle’s death and Garcia Zarate, an illegal immigrant. Lawmakers have also referenced her case while discussing changes to immigration and law enforcement policy.


“But the slain 32-year-old’s family has balked at her case becoming a symbol of Republicans’ immigration agenda.”

“I don’t know who coined ‘Kate’s Law,’” Kate Steinle’s father, Jim, said. “It certainly wasn’t us.”

A Republican bill, so-called “Kate’s Law,” seeks to impose maximum prison penalties to immigrants who repeatedly enter the U.S. illegally.

Fact Comparison

  • Facts in only 1 source
  • Facts in 2 sources
  • Facts in 3 sources
  • Facts in all sources

Attorney Matt Gonzalez of the city Public Defender’s Office said that the shooting was an accident, citing as evidence that the bullet ricocheted off the pier before striking Steinle. (San Francisco Chronicle, CNN)

Information detailing the defense’s explanation for the shooting provides more data on the case, and could help prevent assumptions of guilt before the judge and jury rule. AP and Fox News didn’t include this in their coverage.

The Chronicle additionally cites Gonzalez saying the bullet struck 78 feet away from Steinle, and it also includes the prosecution’s rebuttal for the ricochet, which says it may have been intentional and a result of the gun being shot from a seated position. The outlets that don’t include this information provide a less complete understanding of each argument.

Garcia said when Zarate was interviewed by detectives he first said the gun went off when he stepped on it, and then said it was wrapped up in a bag and that it somehow went off. She said that eventually he admitted deliberately firing the gun, but without explaining why, except at some point to say he was aiming at a seal. (Fox News)

This information, which only Fox includes, may better illustrate why the prosecution questions the defense’s explanation for the shooting.

Gonzalez said that Garcia Zarate had never been charged with a violent crime and was in San Francisco only because federal authorities had transported him there to face a 20-year-old marijuana charge that was dismissed. (CNN)

All four articles mention Garcia Zarate’s marijuana charge, and both the Chronicle and Fox mention nonspecific “criminal charges,” but CNN is the only outlet to point out that he has never been charged with a violent crime. This information helps to clarify Garcia Zarate’s criminal record and may assuage premature assumptions that he had a violent criminal past.

Fox does note that “San Francisco, as a sanctuary city, honors immigration holds only if the person has a violent record or if a judge vetted the hold or approved a warrant.” But Fox doesn’t clarify that Zarate wouldn’t qualify for the hold since he hadn’t committed any violent crimes.


An article’s headline can direct how the news is understood. Compare and contrast how different outlets present the story through their headlines.

Implies the man and his case are fueling the debate.

Trump and other politicians have spoken about Garcia Zarate in discussing immigration policies. Yet saying he “stoked” the debate attributes the source of the debate to him (not to politicians citing him), which could lend credibility to the belief that his case is particularly representative of immigration issues.  

Slants in favor of the prosecution’s side.

By quoting the prosecutor but not the defense, this headline puts more weight on the possibility that Garcia Zarate is guilty. It could bias readers, and those involved with the trial, towards one side of the case.

Blames the city of San Francisco for Steinle’s death.

Granted the city did release Garcia Zarate from prison prior to Steinle’s death, but saying there’s blood on the city’s hands may encourage readers to blame the city for its protocol.


Get the full picture! Don’t buy into cherry-picked information.

The media’s slant:
  • Garcia Zarate’s case is a symbol of the national immigration debate. If there were better immigration enforcement, Steinle wouldn’t have been killed. (AP, Fox News, San Francisco Chronicle)
  • President Trump and Republicans exploited Steinle’s death as a political ploy to push their immigration agendas. (CNN)
  • Either Garcia Zarate is likely guilty (AP, Fox News, San Francisco Chronicle), or he’s probably innocent and a victim who came to the U.S. to escape extreme poverty and harsh conditions (CNN).
What the media doesn’t explore:
  • While politicians have spoken about this case in relation to immigration, it might not provide significant insight into illegal immigration and crime. It’s a single case, and the outlets don’t provide data or statistics to assess whether violent crime rates are higher among illegal immigrants, compared to U.S. citizens, residents and legal aliens. In addition, violence is a societal problem and isn’t limited to immigrants.
  • There may be some legitimate issues around immigration and crime rates that politicians are focusing on. Again, these articles don’t provide enough hard facts to tell either way, so either way is speculation. (See Context below for more information.)
  • The trial just started, and it’s up to the court and jury to determine whether Garcia Zarate is guilty of intentionally killing Steinle or not. But media weighting information to support either perspective prior to the trial’s conclusion can bias the public’s perception of the case.


Access information and historical data that provides a more comprehensive understanding of the story.

How much do immigrants affect U.S. crime rates?

The short answer to this is, “It’s hard to tell.” Several studies on the issue have been conducted over the years — this is a small sample. Of the eight studies we analyzed, five showed that increases in immigrant populations don’t lead to increases in violent crime, one said that more data is needed, and two showed an increase in federal incarceration rates among immigrants. (The multiple studies aggregated by the CATO Institute were counted as one.) Below is a snapshot of some of their findings.

American Immigration Council

Conclusion: Immigrants are less likely to commit serious crimes or be behind bars than those born in the U.S., and high rates of immigration are associated with lower rates of violent crime and property crime.

Supporting data:

  • While foreign-born U.S. citizens increased from 7.9 to 13.1 percent of the population between 1990 and 2013, and the number of unauthorized immigrants more than tripled from 3.5 to 11.2 million during the same period, violent crime rates in the U.S. declined 48 percent and property crime rates reduced by 41 percent.
  • About 1.6 percent of immigrant males aged 18-39 are incarcerated, compared to 3.3 percent of U.S.-born males in the same age group.

Center for Immigration Studies

Conclusion: Studies on immigrants and crime lack “good” data. More data is needed.

Supporting data:

  • The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) estimates that immigrants (legal and illegal) comprise 20 percent of inmates in prisons and jails, but the department didn’t explain how it came to those numbers.
  • A third party commissioned by the DHS studied 8.1 million inmate records from state prison systems and 45 large county jails. It found that 22 percent of inmates were foreign-born, but the report did not include all of the nation’s jails.
  • The National Research Council studied data compiled by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) and Immigration Policy Center (IPC). The data showed a 28 percent decline in incarcerated immigrants from 1990 to 2000, during a period that also had an estimated immigrant population increase of 59 percent. But data from 2007 showed a 146 percent increase in immigrant incarceration from 2000 to 2007. That time period experienced a 22 percent increase in the overall immigrant population.

CATO Institute (an aggregate of multiple studies)

Conclusion: Studies using data from the U.S. Census Bureau, and macro-level studies have found that immigrants are less “crime-prone” than U.S.-born “with some small potential exceptions.”

Supporting data:

  • A study of census data on the incarceration rates for men aged 18-40 from 1980, 1990 and 2000 showed that immigrants were less likely to be incarcerated than native-born men. And in 2000, the incarceration rate for immigrant men was one-fifth that of native-born men.
  • In 2010, 10.7 percent of native-born men aged 18-39 without a high school degree were incarcerated, compared to 2.8 percent of Mexican immigrants and 1.7 percent of Guatemalan and Salvadoran immigrants who were considered to be uneducated or “less” educated.
  • Using U.S. county data, one study found that a 10 percent increase in the number of immigrants in a county increased the property crime rate by 1.2 percent, but did not affect the violent crime rate.

Pew Research Center

Conclusion: An increase in illegal immigration and an increase in immigration law enforcement have changed “the ethnic composition” of the people sentenced in federal courts.

Supporting data:

  • In 2007, immigration offenses represented about 24 percent of all federal convictions, up from 7 percent in 1991.
  • About 32 percent of all “federal offenders” in 2007 were considered non-U.S. citizens.

Government Accountability Office

Since this was a cost assessment for immigrant incarcerations, no conclusion was reached. However, the report said the number of criminal aliens in federal prisons in 2010 increased by about 7 percent compared with 2005 incarceration data.