RICOCHET Goes Inside Gnarliest Case of San Francisco Public Defender's Office
By Anita Katz Special to The Examiner
May 31, 2022 Updated Jun 16, 2022
JEFF ADACHI, SAN FRANCISCO'S public defender at the time, knew his office was about to take on its biggest case ever.
On July 1, 2015, 32-year-old Kate Steinle was fatally shot as she walked along Pier 14 on the Embarcadero with her father and a friend.
When the man who fired the gun turned out to be an undocumented immigrant with felony convictions, the incident received high profile media coverage, and then–presidential candidate Donald Trump painted the suspect as a murderous menace and exploited the case to vilify sanctuary cities and foment anti-immigrant sentiment.
What people are less likely to remember, says filmmaker Chihiro Wimbush, director of the documentary “Ricochet,” is that the realities of the case contradicted the prevailing narrative. The defendant, Jose Inez Garcia-Zarate, was not a violent man and the shooting, while tragic, was accidental, his public defenders argued. The jury agreed.
“We never hear about big cases being tried, let alone being won, by a public law office,” says Matt Gonzalez, chief attorney at the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office.
“Ricochet,” which screens at the 2022 San Francisco Documentary Festival Wednesday, presents such a story.
“It feels like a miracle that we got this finished,” says Wimbush, who, along with Gonzalez, discussed the film and the Garcia-Zarate trial with The Examiner.
Wimbush assumed directorial duties after Adachi, the film’s original director (the public defender was also an established filmmaker) died in 2019.
“I became director by default,” Wimbush says. “I had big shoes to fill.”
“I was always serving Jeff’s vision — I knew what he wanted,” adds Wimbush, whose previous collaborations with Adachi include the film “Defender.”
Wimbush describes “Ricochet” as both a document of the Garcia-Zarate case and a close-up look at how the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office plays a crucial role in the justice system by providing those who cannot afford an attorney with capable, dedicated legal representation.
Those influenced by the statements of Donald Trump and the focus of the media might easily have concluded the defendant was guilty of murder or manslaughter. The defense team, led by Gonzalez and also featuring Francisco Ugarte, managing attorney of the public defender’s Immigration Defense Unit, debunked that perception.
While the absence of courtroom footage (cameras weren’t allowed at the trial) is hard to remedy, Wimbush has crafted a compelling 78-minute behind-the-scenes account of the complex court case, combining fly-on-the-wall strategizing scenes, forensic analysis, surveillance footage, and interviews with principal attorneys, a juror, writer Dave Eggers and others.
Those influenced by the statements of Donald Trump might easily have concluded the defendant was guilty of murder or manslaughter. The defense team debunked that perception.
The nonfiction drama intensifies as it continues to reveal that Garcia-Zarate, who came to the United States to escape extreme poverty in Mexico, is not the “no good” monster Trump describes. None of his prior felony convictions, which were for small drug offenses and entering the country illegally, involved violence.
Additionally, while the prosecution maintains Garcia-Zarate fired the gun intentionally, at almost point-blank range, evidence indicates Steinle’s death was an accident. Garcia-Zarate picked up a bundle of rags from underneath a bench, and a gun was inside. It went off accidentally, experts testified. The bullet struck the concrete and ricocheted, striking Steinle, who was more than 80 feet away.
Further, while Garcia-Zarate said he committed the crime, a disturbing sequence shows police interrogators coercing the defendant, whom observers described as mentally challenged, into (falsely) confessing.
The weapon, meanwhile, was a brand of gun that had no safety catch and was known to go off easily.
There’s more, including a charge of illegal firearm possession and a federal case that has trapped Garcia-Zarate in what Wimbush calls a Kafkaesque situation.
Despite the evidence indicating innocence, many thought the odds for acquittal of a man demonized by Trump and mischaracterized by the media were slim.
The defense team wouldn’t budge, though.
“I decided to go not for manslaughter but for acquittal,” Gonzalez says, looking back. Why, he asks, would a man with no known history of violence intentionally shoot at a woman he’s never met?
“When new facts contradict the original take, the system isn’t good at incorporating the new facts into its argument,” Gonzalez says.
Gonzalez, who is also a former San Francisco Board of Supervisors president, a 2003 mayoral candidate and a visual artist, first joined the Public Defender’s Office in 1991, during Adachi’s early years as an attorney there.
“We changed the culture of the office,” Gonzalez says. “We were willing to fight cases hard.”
When he first viewed “Ricochet,” the film seemed too slight to capture the case that “consumed a couple years” of his life, Gonzalez says. But now, he says, he sees that it can enlighten viewers by presenting the story Adachi wanted to tell — that of public defenders and what they do.
Mutsuko Adachi, Jeff Adachi’s widow, expresses similar thoughts.
"I wanted ‘Ricochet’ to be completed for Jeff because he felt that justice was not always distributed fairly in society, and that the public was often looking to scapegoat immigrants, the poor or members of historically marginalized communities,” she says.
“The film honors Jeff’s legacy by demonstrating the skill and tenacity of the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office that Jeff led,” she adds. “I want to thank Chihiro for his dedication to finishing the film, showing Matt Gonzalez and Francisco Ugarte leading the legal team to win a case that most felt was unwinnable.”
As for the filming process, Gonzalez says “originally, we weren’t too keen on having somebody follow us around with a camera. But we agreed to do it. We trusted Jeff.”
Soon, Gonzalez hardly noticed the camera. Cinematographer Jenny Chu “just disappeared, like into the wall.”
What you see onscreen is real, Gonzalez says. “We’re really not actors. I look tired in the film because I was so tired.”
Wimbush and Gonzalez note the film addresses many relevant topics, including anti-immigrant hatred, the dangerous abundance of guns, the distortions put forth by the media and the failings of the justice system.
“If this film can do one small thing to get people talking about all these issues, then it will be a great success for me,” Wimbush says.
Even after the trial, the messaging about undocumented immigrants and sanctuary cities obscured truths, Wimbush says. “People don’t even remember the verdict. I hope the film is going to change that narrative.”
Wimbush says he’s excited the film will finally screen in San Francisco. “It’s a very San Francisco story,” he says.
Gonzalez agrees. “San Francisco is a big immigrant city. It’s cosmopolitan and very tolerant. For 'Ricochet' to be shown in San Francisco is very poignant.”
And what if Hollywood comes calling, wanting to adapt “Ricochet” into a legal drama, would Wimbush approve?
“It would depend on who would be doing it, and their approach,” Wimbush says. “Maybe if Scorsese was interested."
5 Takeaways From ‘Ricochet,’ a New Documentary About
Jeff Adachi and the
Kate Steinle Case
LOOKING BACK ON the runup to the 2016 election and its attendant media circus, certain events loom larger than others: The surreal spectacle of Donald Trump’s golden escalator speech, the Access Hollywood tape, Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables,” the laptop.
And then there was the tragic killing of Kate Steinle on July 1, 2015, at Pier 14 in San Francisco.
In Ricochet, the unmissable new documentary from co-directors Chiriro Wimbush and the late Jeff Adachi—San Francisco’s former public defender—the death of Steinle is reexamined and unpacked for its historical significance.
The incident was ultimately ruled a freak accident; the defendant, Jose Inez Garcia-Zarate, claimed all along that he found the gun and inadvertantly discharged it on that fateful day. However, in the aftermath of Steinle’s death, then-candidate Trump seized upon the case, transforming it into a national litmus test on immigration and progressive ideology.
"An engrossing look at a freak occurrence that became a cause celebre for all the wrong reasons, helping define the vindictive, emotion-driven political landscape we’ve been stuck with ever since."
"Everyone loves a story about crusaders against injustice in the legal system, and on that level, Ricochet delivers"
"Amidst the dizzying swirl of sensationalist and partisan national news media, the independent documentary form has become a vital corrective and side channel of information. That’s certainly the case with the powerful and eye-opening doc Ricochet" —Santa Barbara Independent
SANTA BARBARA INDEPENDENT
“Given the heftier program and the long days/nights of taking in as much as possible, this critic’s Top Ten needed to breathe a bit, stretching to a Top Dozen: Miss Viborg (Marianne Blicher), The Righteous (Mark O’Brien), Islands (Martin Edralin), Nitram (Justin Kerzel), You Resemble Me (Dina Emer), The Good Boss (Fernando Leon de Aranoa), 107 Women (Péter Kerekes), NÖ (Dietrich Brüggemann), House of Darkness (Neil LaBute), La Hija (Manuel Martín Cuenca), One Road to Quartzsite (Ryan Maxey), Ricochet (Jeff Adachi, Chihiro Wimbush).”
Catalyst for Conversation
"The film presents opportunities to find connections that go beyond the singular “Asian American” and “Pacific Islander” tags. The program invites us to explore the many different identities, experiences, and lives Asian Americans hold within themselves, and to witness the amazing things that are born from these intersections.""
CHIHIRO WIMBUSH talks with co-hosts Erin Lim and Ange Tabora about the making of Ricochet.
MATT GONZALEZ, the Chief Attorney for the San Francisco Public Defender’s office, discusses his role in Ricochet.
BEFORE HIS TRAGIC DEMISE San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi left one final gift to San Francisco history. That gift, his last uncompleted film, comes courtesy of his other work as an established documentary filmmaker. Co-director Chihiro Wimbush has now completed the film and finally made it available for community screening.
Ricochet received Honorable Mention on BEYOND CHRON's Best Films of 2021 list: