Undocumented immigrant to stand trial in San Francisco waterfront shooting

By Emmett Berg

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - An undocumented immigrant accused of shooting a woman along San Francisco's famous waterfront in a killing that has ratcheted up the national debate over immigration will stand trial on murder and weapons charges, a judge ruled on Friday.

Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez was charged with murder and illegal possession of a firearm in the July 1 shooting of Kathryn Steinle, 32, as she walked arm-in-arm with her father along Pier 14 near the Ferry Building in a popular tourist area.

After Lopez-Sanchez, 45, was arrested, authorities revealed that he was a felon who had been deported five times to Mexico from the United States. The case rose to national prominence when Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump said Steinle's death was the result of failed U.S. immigration policies.

It also highlighted San Francisco's status as a so-called sanctuary city, one of several hundred municipalities nationwide that in the 1980s and 1990s chose to limit assistance to federal authorities deporting people in their jurisdictions, initially as a way to protect refugees fleeing from wars in Central America.

Lopez-Sanchez' attorney, public defender Matt Gonzalez, said the shooting was the result of an accidental discharge of a firearm that his client found wrapped in a rag under his seat at the pier. He pointed to forensic evidence presented by the prosecution showing that the bullet had possibly bounced off of the concrete of the pier walkway, saying an intentional shot would not have done that.

But prosecutors said Lopez-Sanchez was sitting in a swivel chair, and chose to shoot in Steinle's direction.

Lopez-Sanchez had been in jail in San Francisco on a warrant for a decades-old marijuana offense. After the warrant was dismissed, sheriff's department officials released him, despite a detainer request from U.S. immigration authorities.

Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi has said he would have needed a new warrant or judicial order to hold him longer.

But U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement have said that if the agency had been notified, Lopez-Sanchez would have been released from jail, federal agents would have taken him into custody and deported him. They said they were never notified.

On Tuesday, Steinle's family filed wrongful death claims against Mirkarimi and two federal agencies, alleging negligence and other errors in his handling.

(Reporting by Emmett Berg; Writing by Curtis Skinner; Editing by Sharon Bernstein and Sandra Maler)