Steinle Trial Defense Attorneys Question Credibility of Key Prosecution Witness

San Francisco public defender chief attorney Matt Gonzalez (L) leaves court after the arraignment for Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, also known as Juan Francisco Lopez Sanchez on July 7, 2015 in San Francisco.

Matt Gonzalez, chief attorney with the San Francisco Public Defender's Office, and Deputy Public Defender Francisco Ugarte leave court after the arraignment for Jose Ines Garcia Zarate on July 7, 2015, in San Francisco. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Update, 1:55 p.m. Monday: Judge Samuel Feng did not allow rebuttal testimony for the prosecution from retired crime scene investigator John Evans, or from witnesses who defense attorneys for Jose Ines Garcia Zarate were prepared to call in response.

Feng recessed the jury until closing arguments in a short hearing Monday morning, strenuously admonishing jurors not to read any news about the case.

Defense attorney Matt Gonzalez said he was prepared to cross-examine and impeach Evans, based on what he called “illogical testimony” in the Steinle trial and the allegations against Evans in an unrelated case.

Evans testified on Oct. 30 that the only reasonable analysis of Steinle’s death was that “a human being held a firearm, pointed it in the direction of Ms. Steinle, pulled the trigger and fired, killing her.”

He testified in an unrelated case that a San Francisco Police Department study found “a large percentage” of shell casings fired from semi-automatic weapons typically fall in front of the shooter. The study actually found the opposite — that shell casings are typically ejected to the right and rear of the shooter. Evans since said in deposition testimony that he never read the study.

“The conclusion I would ask the jury to draw is that he lacks integrity,” Gonzalez said in an interview after Monday’s hearing. “Our general sense of this witness after seeing him on the stand and cross-examining him was, wow, this guy is willing to say whatever he needs to say to help the prosecution.”

Gonzalez is arguing that Steinle’s death was an accident: Garcia Zarate picked up an unknown object wrapped in cloth and didn’t know it was a gun until it fired, ricocheting off the concrete and traveling 78 feet before hitting Steinle. The prosecution is arguing that Garcia Zarate intended to shoot the fatal shot, and should be convicted of murder.

Defense expert witness James Norris testified Nov. 6 that the bullet’s trajectory was impossible to predict after the ricochet. He was also hired by plaintiff’s attorneys in the lawsuit charging Evans and other San Francisco police officers with malicious prosecution and deprivation of civil rights.

Norris said Evans gave misleading testimony in the other case, and his testimony in the Steinle case was refuted by accepted principles of forensics.

“What he said in court is refuted by textbooks in the field,” Norris said outside court on Monday, “not me, but literally textbooks that are written on this subject.”

A spokesman for the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office, which represents Evans in the lawsuit, said the complaints against Evans “are completely false.” A spokesman for the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office said it’s inappropriate to determine someone’s credibility based on allegations in a civil lawsuit.

But Gonzalez said there could be a pattern of misleading testimony from Evans.

“He testified that the only reasonable interpretation of the evidence was this theory of guilt, and that’s just not credible,” Gonzalez said. “I mean no other expert will say that. That’s why they called him, because he’s available to give the testimony that they need. We think the jury will see through it.”

Original post, 9:55 a.m. Monday: Defense attorneys for the man on trial for murder over the fatal shooting of Kathryn Steinle say allegations against a key prosecution witness in an unrelated case call his testimony and conclusions about Steinle’s death into question.

Retired San Francisco police crime scene investigator John Evans is expected to testify again in the Steinle case Monday as a prosecution rebuttal witness. He testified on Oct. 30 that “a human being held a firearm, pointed it in the direction of Ms. Steinle, pulled the trigger and fired, killing her.”

He added: “That is the only way this could have occurred that is reasonable.”

Evans’ conclusion directly contradicts the argument by attorneys for defendant Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, who say their client found a gun wrapped in cloth on the pedestrian pier where Steinle was shot. The attorneys say the gun went off before Garcia Zarate knew what he was holding and that Steinle’s death was an accident.

As first reported by Tim Redmond for 48 Hills on Sunday, Evans is a defendant in an unrelated federal lawsuit alleging that he offered misleading testimony as a prosecution witness in an earlier murder trial.

Testimony on 2007 Killing

The suit, filed last year, centers on the fatal 2007 shooting of Seu Kuka, a resident of the city’s Sunnydale housing project, and the later conviction of Jamal Trulove for murdering Kuka. The lawsuit charges that Evans mischaracterized both the conclusions that could be drawn from shell casings recovered at the crime scene and the results of earlier SFPD research on the behavior of shell casings ejected from 9 mm semiautomatic pistols similar to the weapon used in Kuka’s killing.

Trulove maintained his innocence after he was convicted in 2010 and won a new trial on appeal. He was acquitted in 2015 after jurors “had trouble reconciling the evidence” with an account by a witness of the shooting and identification of Trulove as the shooter, according to the San Francisco Chronicle‘s reporting on the second trial’s outcome.

That physical evidence included eight shell casings indicating a position of the shooter that would have been impossible for the witness to have seen, according to Trulove’s arguments in the federal lawsuit against Evans, several other police officers and the city of San Francisco.

Evans testified at both Trulove’s initial trial and his retrial that generally little could be gleaned from the location of shell casings. At the 2015 retrial, Evans testified that trying to determine the location of a shooter based on the location of shell casings was “a fallacy on the level of a broken clock being right twice a day,” according to portions of the trial transcript read during a June 7, 2017, deposition of Evans in Trulove’s civil case.

Evans also testified that “studies we have done in the San Francisco Police Department Crime Scene Investigation Unit” found that “a large percentage” of spent shell casings will end up in front of a shooter.

According to Evans’ sworn deposition testimony, he was referring to a single official study conducted in 2001 by SFPD Officer Ronan Shouldice, which he had not read when he testified about it. The study appears to conclude that 9 mm shell casings landed to the right and rear of the shooter 49 out of 50 times.

The lawsuit alleges Evans and other officers who were involved in the Kuka murder investigation conspired to deprive Trulove of his civil rights, violated due process, and failed to disclose exculpatory information that resulted in a malicious prosecution in violation of the Fourth and 14th amendments.

“These complaints against Inspector Evans are completely false,” a spokesman for the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office, which represents Evans in the lawsuit, wrote in an emailed response.

The plaintiff’s June questioning of Evans was often hostile, according to a transcript provided by defense attorneys in the Steinle case.

Plaintiff’s attorney Nick Brustin called Evans a liar early in his testimony.

‘Did You Like Being Called a Liar?’

“Let’s be very clear here,” Brustin said, according to the transcript. “You understand that we called you a liar in the complaint, correct? … And you understood we claimed you lied about the substance of that study, correct? … Did you like being called a liar?”

Deputy City Attorney Margaret Baumgartner instructed Evans not to answer.

But Evans does answer that he had not read the 2001 study when he testified about it.

“In retrospect, do you have any concern about testifying under oath in a homicide trial about a study that you hadn’t seen?” Brustin asked.

“After having spoken to the author of the memorandum and having known him for decades, and knowing his abilities and knowing his statements in relation to his abilities and in relation to what I know to be fact, and my general impression and respect for that author, no, I don’t have any qualms,” Evans answered.

In a separate deposition, Shouldice, the author of the study, said he didn’t recall ever speaking with Evans about his research.

The civil case involves a conflict between Evans and another forensics expert who testified for the defense in the Steinle trial, James Norris.

Hired by the plaintiffs in the Trulove case, Norris wrote that Evans’ opinions about shell casing analysis “are completely inconsistent with minimally acceptable practices for forensic reporting and testimony.”

“In Inspector Shouldice’s deposition testimony, he testified that Inspector Evans’ characterization of the study as showing a large percentage of the casing ended up in front of the shooter, was not only inaccurate but constituted a gross misrepresentation,” Norris wrote. “Inspector Shouldice expressed surprise at the content of Inspector Evans’ testimony. Inspector Shouldice also testified that it was inappropriate for Inspector Evans to testify in court about a study he had not read, and for an expert to misrepresent the strength of findings in a study.”

A spokesman for the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office said it’s inappropriate to question the credibility of a witness based on unsubstantiated allegations in a lawsuit.

“We make determinations of people’s credibility based on objective, verifiable facts,” Assistant District Attorney Alex Bastian said.

But Garcia Zarate’s defense attorneys say there’s much more to the Trulove case than just the allegations, including the fact that Trulove’s conviction was eventually reversed. They also point out inconsistencies in deposition testimony of officers involved in the investigation.

“There’s a reason why the judge did not dismiss him from the lawsuit [as she has other defendants],” defense attorney Matt Gonzalez said. “He testified outside the bounds of anything that is reasonable.”

Gonzalez said Evans’ conclusion in the Steinle case — that “a human being held a firearm, pointed it in the direction of Ms. Steinle, pulled the trigger and fired, killing her” — was improper testimony. If he testifies again Monday, Gonzalez said he’ll ask him questions about the Trulove case.

“He’ll say anything they want him to say,” Gonzalez said.

Steinle Trial Defense Attorneys Question Credibility of Key Prosecution Witness 13 November,2017Alex Emslie

Author

Alex Emslie

Alex Emslie is a criminal justice reporter at KQED. He covers policing policy, crime and the courts.

He left Colorado and a career as a carpenter in 2008 to study journalism at City College of San Francisco. He then graduated from San Francisco State University’s journalism program with a minor in criminal justice studies. Prior to joining KQED in 2013, Alex freelanced for various news outlets including the Huffington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner and Bay Guardian.

Alex is proud of his work at KQED on a spike in fatal officer-involved shootings in Vallejo, which uncovered that a single officer shot and killed three suspects over the course of five months. Alex’s work with a team at KQED on police encounters with people in psychiatric crisis was cited in amicus briefs before the U.S. Supreme Court. He received the Northern California Society of Professional Journalists Best Scoop award in 2015 for exposing a series of bigoted text messages swapped by San Francisco police officers. He was honored with 2010 San Francisco Peninsula Press Club and California Newspaper Publishers Association awards for breaking news reporting on the trial following the shooting of Oscar Grant. Email: aemslie@kqed.org. Twitter: @SFNewsReporter.

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor