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.
Their documentary “Ricochet” recounts the high-profile murder trial of Jose Garcia-Zarate. Not only was the defendant’s life and freedom at stake, but the furor surrounding the trial would affect how cities such as San Francisco would treat undocumented immigrants in the future.
For those unfamiliar with the case, Garcia-Zarate was a homeless undocumented and unemployed immigrant. On July 1, 2015, he hung out on a chair at Pier 14 at San Francisco’s Embarcadero. Kate Steinle was also visiting the pier with her father. A shot rang out, and the young woman wound up fatally struck by a bullet in her back. Garcia-Zarate was soon arrested and supposedly confessed to the murder on July 5, 2015.
The case finally came to trial on October 23, 2017. Representing Garcia-Zarate would be Matt Gonzalez, the Chief Attorney for the San Francisco Public Defender’s office. He and Francisco Ugarte of the Public Defender’s Immigration Unit faced an apparently uphill battle. The aggressively racist Orange Skull publicly battened on the Steinle killing to promote bigoted persecution of undocumented immigrants. The majority of mainstream media news outlets helped build a public lynch mob mentality regarding Garcia-Zarate’s guilt. “Ricochet” follows the efforts of Adachi’s office to exonerate their client.
The beauty of Ricochet is in its showing in painstaking detail how, stripped of its racist accoutrements, the Steinle death can be understood as the product of a confluence of freak occurrences.
Adachi and Wimbush wisely show how Steinle’s death became a Christmas present for racist demagogues. Pictures of the dead woman show her to be a young attractive white blonde woman, presumably middle class. She died in front of her father, so there’s the “parent seeing their child die before them” emotional trigger. Garcia-Zarate (whose pictures appear to be darkened at least a little to make him look more menacing) is a very non-white undocumented immigrant who’s supposedly responsible for fatally harming this white woman.
The beauty of “Ricochet” is in its showing in painstaking detail how, stripped of its racist accoutrements, the Steinle death can be understood as the product of a confluence of freak occurrences. The fatal bullet was never fired directly at the victim but was the product of a ricochet. The gun that fired the bullet was a weapon easily susceptible to accidental discharge, which happens far more often than the average person realizes. And so on.
The Gonzalez & Ugarte team’s patient efforts to build their defense is compelling, especially given the high profile nature of the case. But Adachi made a wise choice in Gonzalez, as the attorney’s prior history as a political candidate showed his ability to do far better than people expected in supposedly hopeless situations.
The most important service performed by “Ricochet” is its clearing away the racist imagery right-wingers have successfully used to demonize Sanctuary City policies. Isn’t it better for society if undocumented immigrants reported crimes they’ve witnessed to the police or seek medical help if they get ill rather than let their medical condition worsen? Taking away the disincentive of risking deportation is basically what a Sanctuary City policy is all about. Admittedly, there are people who believe that it’s reasonable to deport even a person who commits a minor crime for reasons of survival. In which case, they’re the sort of people who believe Inspector Javert was the real hero of “Les Miserables” for doggedly seeking to harshly punish the starving Jean Valjean for stealing a loaf of bread.
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