SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A judge ruled Friday that a man at the center of the national immigration debate must stand trial on a murder charge in the shooting of a young San Francisco woman.
Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, 45, is charged with second-degree murder in the July 1 killing of 32-year-old Kate Steinle as she walked with her father and a family friend along the San Francisco waterfront. He could face life in prison if convicted.
Lopez-Sanchez acknowledged shooting Steinle but said the gun he found under a bench had fired accidentally. Prosecutors disagreed.
"He could have fired the gun anywhere, but he fired at Kate Steinle," prosecutor Diane Garcia said in court. "He played his own version of Russian roulette."
Public defender Matt Gonzalez said his client never pulled the trigger. Instead, he says Lopez-Sanchez found the gun wrapped in a T-shirt and it accidentally went off as he picked up the bundle.
"This gun has no safety," Gonzalez said of the .40 caliber semiautomatic pistol that was reported stolen in June by a federal agent. Gonzalez said the gun is a common weapon used by law enforcement and police have reported other accidental discharges.
"There is no evidence that he put his finger in the trigger," the lawyer said.
Judge Brendan Conroy said he heard enough evidence over a five-day preliminary hearing to warrant a jury trial for Lopez-Sanchez, who has pleaded not guilty.
The shooting triggered a national debate over immigration after it was revealed that the Sheriff's Department had released Lopez-Sanchez despite a federal request to detain him for possible deportation.
Lopez-Sanchez was previously deported five times to his native Mexico.
Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump has repeatedly mentioned the killing of Steinle as he calls for a border wall and mass deportations to curb illegal immigration. California Sen. Dianne Feinstein and presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, both Democrats, said Lopez-Sanchez should have been detained.
San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi said he was following city law when jailers released Lopez-Sanchez after a 20-year-old marijuana possession charge was dropped.
The sheriff said his department requires federal officials to obtain a warrant or some other judicial notice in order for his jail to hold an inmate facing possible deportation.
Gonzalez said Lopez-Sanchez is homeless and has a second-grade education. He was released from jail in April with no money then arrested an hour after the shooting while wearing one sock and two pairs of pants to keep warm.
Lopez-Sanchez told police at one point that he was shooting at a seal or a black fish. But Gonzalez said it was an awkward effort by Lopez-Sanchez to explain the accidental shooting.
The parents of Steinle have said federal and local authorities contributed to the death through negligence and bureaucratic bungling.
The family alleges in legal claims that a Bureau of Land Management ranger left his loaded service weapon in a backpack in plain view in his car before the gun was stolen.
BLM spokeswoman Martha Maciel said the agency is cooperating with the investigation of the shooting but she declined further comment.
The Steinle family and their attorneys filed three separate legal claims seeking unspecified damages from the BLM, San Francisco Sheriff's Department and U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Such claims must be filed before government agencies can be sued.
This story has been corrected to reflect that the charge against Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez is second-degree murder, not first-degree.